The organiser of the flight in which footballer Emiliano Sala died has been found guilty of endangering the safety of an aircraft.
Sala, 28, and pilot David Ibbotson, 59, died in the crash in the English Channel in January 2019.
David Henderson, 67, of Hotham, East Riding of Yorkshire, was found guilty after a trial at Cardiff Crown Court.
He had also previously admitted trying to arrange a flight for a passenger without permission or authorisation.
It took the jury seven and a half hours to convict Henderson, who will be sentenced on 12 November, by a majority verdict.
Lawyers speaking on behalf of Sala’s family said Henderson’s convictions were welcomed but his actions were only “one piece of the puzzle” of how the plane came to crash.
Argentine striker Sala and Mr Ibbotson died after their single-engine Piper Malibu plunged into the English Channel on a flight between Cardiff and Nantes in January 2019, set up by Henderson with football agent William “Willie” McKay.
The footballer was involved in a £15m transfer to Cardiff City from Nantes and was travelling between the two cities at the time of his death.
The court heard how Ibbotson, who regularly flew for Henderson, did not hold a commercial pilot’s licence, a qualification to fly at night, and his rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu had expired.
Henderson had asked Mr Ibbotson to fly the plane as he was away on holiday with his wife in Paris.
Just moments after finding out the plane had gone down, Henderson texted a number of people telling them to stay silent, warning it would “open a can of worms”, the jury was told.
The father-of-three and former RAF officer admitted in court he had feared an investigation into his business dealings.
Prosecutor Martin Goudie QC said Henderson had been “reckless or negligent” in the way he operated the plane, by putting his business above the safety of passengers.
Mr Goudie said Henderson had created a culture of breaching the air navigation regulations among the pilots he hired.
Fay Keely, who owned the plane, had told Henderson not to allow Mr Ibbotson
to pilot the plane again after being contacted by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) about two airspace infringements he had committed.
Despite this, Henderson allowed Mr Ibbotson to continue flying, and his message to the pilot read: “We both have an opportunity to make money out of the business model but not if we upset clients or draw the attention of the CAA.”
‘Incompetent, undocumented and dishonest’
Henderson did not have the permit needed to fly passengers in the American plane, or an Air Operator Certificate (AOC), which was also required.
Mr Goudie accused Henderson of lying in his statements to investigators, and of running a “cowboy outfit” after questioning him over failings to keep basic information on his pilots.
In his closing speech, he claimed Henderson ran an “incompetent, undocumented and dishonest organisation”.
However Stephen Spence QC, defending, had said his client’s actions were “purely a paperwork issue” and had not led to a likelihood of danger.
He said his client knew Mr Ibbotson, who had been flying for decades, was an experienced pilot.
Mr Spence told the court the only difference between a commercial licence and the private licence held by Mr Ibbotson was whether you could carry passengers for money or not, rather than ability.
Henderson also argued on the stand that he had phoned Ms Keely after she forbade Mr Ibbotson from flying and convinced her to let him pilot again.
Ms Keely said she does not remember such a call.
What has the reaction been?
Daniel Machover, of Hickman & Rose solicitors, representing the Sala family, said in a statement after the verdict: “Mr Henderson’s convictions are welcome and we hope the CAA will ensure that illegal flights of this kind are stopped.
“The actions of David Henderson are only one piece in the puzzle of how the plane David Ibbotson was illegally flying came to crash into the sea on 21 January 2019.
“We still do not know the key information about the maintenance history of the aircraft and all the factors behind the carbon monoxide poisoning revealed in August 2019 by AAIB.
“The answers to these questions can only be properly established at Emiliano’s inquest, which is due to start in February next year.”
The statement added that the Sala family “fervently hope” all involved in the inquest, including Piper Aircraft Inc and the AAIB, would provide full disclosure of material.
“Only if that happens will Emiliano’s family finally know the truth about this tragedy enabling all the lessons to be learned, so that no family goes through a similar preventable death,” it said.
Kate Staples, the UK CAA’s general counsel, extended sympathies to families and friends affected by the fatal crash.
“Aviation safety relies upon the integrity of everyone involved in the industry,” she said.
“Unlawful and unsafe activity such as Mr Henderson’s is unacceptable and the UK Civil Aviation Authority will always look to prosecute illegal activity.”
Kevin Ducksbury, the chairman of the Air Charter Association (ACA), said the trade body was “deeply dismayed” that “so many fundamental safety rules, and basic rules of airmanship were disregarded and broken” in this case.
“The ruling confirms that Mr Henderson arranged and coordinated this flight illegally, in which footballer Emiliano Sala tragically lost his life.
“The association is profoundly disturbed that this flight was allowed to happen but welcomes the UK CAA’s representation in this case,” he said.
Mr Ducksbury added that the ACA would continue its work to educate the public and wider aviation community, with it’s primary cause to stamp out illegal transport.