2019 English Channel Piper PA-46 crash

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2019 English Channel Piper PA-46 crash
A crumpled section of the Piper's rear fuselage with the characters 264DB barely recognisable
The wreckage of N264DB, the Piper Malibu involved, resting on the sea floor
Date21 January 2019 (2019-01-21)
SummaryLost at sea; wreckage found on seabed; under investigation
SiteEnglish Channel, off Alderney, Channel Islands
49°49′N 2°43′W / 49.82°N 2.71°W / 49.82; -2.71Coordinates: 49°49′N 2°43′W / 49.82°N 2.71°W / 49.82; -2.71[1]
Aircraft typePiper PA-46 Malibu
Flight originNantes Atlantique Airport, Nantes, France
DestinationCardiff Airport, Cardiff, Wales

On 21 January 2019, a Piper PA-46 Malibu light aircraft transporting Argentine football player Emiliano Sala crashed in the English Channel off Alderney, Channel Islands. The aircraft was travelling from Nantes, France, to Cardiff, Wales.

The wreckage of the aircraft was found thirteen days later on the seabed at a depth of 220 feet (67 m). On 7 February, Sala's body was recovered from the wreckage. No trace of the pilot has been found.


The aircraft departed from Nantes Atlantique Airport at 19:15 GMT (20:15 CET) bound for Cardiff Airport.[2] Sala had been signed two days previously by Cardiff City Football Club from FC Nantes.[2][3] The pilot was identified by Guernsey Police as David Ibbotson.[4] Shortly before contact with Jersey air traffic control was lost, a request was made by the pilot to descend from 5,000 feet (1,500 m) to 2,500 feet (760 m), in order to maintain visual meteorological conditions.[5][6] Contact was lost when the aircraft was at an altitude of 2,300 feet (700 m).[2]

At 20:23 GMT, Guernsey Coastguard received an alert from Jersey air traffic control saying that a plane had gone off the radar around 13 nautical miles (24 km; 15 mi) north of Guernsey.[7] The plane was then around 7 nautical miles (13 km; 8 mi) northwest of Alderney, Channel Islands, near Casquets lighthouse.[8]

Sala reportedly sent an audio message via WhatsApp expressing concerns during the flight, saying "I am now on board a plane that seems like it is falling to pieces... If you do not have any more news in an hour and a half, I don't know if they need to send someone to find me. I am getting scared!"[9] Cardiff City had offered Sala a commercial flight from Paris, but he said that he had made alternative arrangements and would be training with his teammates on the morning after the flight.[10]

The flight was arranged by football agent Willie McKay, who said that he was not involved in selecting the plane or the pilot. It was reported in French media that the flight was arranged through pilot David Henderson, who had originally intended to fly the plane, but the flight had been given to David Ibbotson.[11][12] The flight plan showed that the plane was scheduled to take off at 09:00 GMT (10:00 CET) on 21 January, but was delayed until the evening.[13]


A white and blue light aircraft parked on a grassy airfield
N264DB, the Piper Malibu involved, photographed in 2017

The aircraft involved was a Piper PA-46 Malibu, a six-seat type equipped with a single piston engine,[14] registered in the United States as N264DB,[15] serial number 46-8408037. The aircraft was manufactured in 1984. The Certificate of Registration had been issued on 11 September 2015.[16]

The aircraft was registered to a trustee, the Southern Aircraft Consultancy in Bungay, Suffolk, United Kingdom.[14][17]


2019 English Channel Piper PA-46 crash is located in English Channel
2019 English Channel Piper PA-46 crash
Location of the aircraft's wreckage in the English Channel

A search and rescue operation was launched, but was suspended at 02:00 GMT on 22 January due to worsening weather conditions. Although the area was outside the United Kingdom's area of responsibility, Her Majesty's Coastguard sent two helicopters to assist in the search for the aircraft.[2] A French helicopter was also sent to participate in the search, as were the Alderney and Guernsey lifeboats.[18]

The search resumed at 08:00 GMT on 22 January.[2] By 11:45 GMT, a total of 755 square nautical miles (2,590 km2; 1,000 sq mi) had been covered by five aircraft and two lifeboats, but no trace of the aircraft had been found.[19] A French Navy vessel also participated in the search.[2] As of 15:30 GMT on 22 January, one aircraft and one lifeboat were still searching, bringing the total area covered to 872 square nautical miles (2,991 km2; 1,155 sq mi).[20] The search was again suspended in the evening of 22 January. Floating objects had been found, but it was not confirmed that they came from the missing aircraft.[18] The search resumed at 08:00 GMT on 23 January with two aircraft searching coastal areas around Alderney.[21] As of 11:30 GMT, a helicopter and three aircraft were continuing the search and trying to review satellite imagery and mobile phone data; there was still no trace of the missing aircraft.[22]

On 23 January, the Channel Islands Air Search said they had abandoned hope of finding any survivors in the water.[23] The search now focused on the possibility that survivors were on a life raft in the English Channel.[24] The official search was called off on 24 January because the chances of survival were said to be "extremely remote". The search had covered 1,284 square nautical miles (4,403 km2; 1,700 sq mi) of land and sea, covering Burhou, Les Casquets, Alderney, the north coast of the Cherbourg Peninsula, and the north coast of Jersey and Sark.[25]

Salvage activity[edit]

Sala's family launched a fundraising appeal to find his body[26] and a private search was launched on 26 January, funded by £259,000 raised in donations, via a specialised organisation.[27] On 28 January, marine scientist David Mearns, who led the search, announced that a search vessel with an unmanned remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) was expected to be in place "by the end of the week". They planned to focus on some 25 square nautical miles (86 km2; 33 sq mi) of the seabed; the last known position of the aircraft was north of Hurd's Deep. In the meantime, two fishing boats were being used to carry out a surface search of the area.[28] Mearns engaged the FPV Morven for the search.[29]

On 30 January 2019, at approximately 13:58 GMT, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) reported that two seat cushions, found near Surtainville in France, were likely to be from the missing aircraft. AAIB identified a priority search area of approximately four square nautical miles (14 km2; 5 sq mi) and commissioned a survey vessel from the British Ministry of Defence with sonar equipment to search the seabed for the aircraft.[30][31][32] The AAIB search carried out by the vessel Geo Ocean III started on 3 February, together with the private search, and was expected to last up to three days; the private search was set to continue "until the plane is located". The planned search was to cover an area of four square nautical miles (14 km2; 5 sq mi) about 24 nautical miles (44 km; 28 mi) north of Guernsey.[33][34][35] The search area was divided between the two teams.

On 3 February, wreckage of the aircraft was found on the seabed[36] at about 0.5 nautical miles (1 km; 0.6 mi) from the last known location.[37][38] The wreckage was at a depth of 220 feet (67 m)[39] and there was a possibility that the bodies of Sala and Ibbotson were still on board.[40] On 4 February, it was confirmed that the image from the AAIB search remote submersible had shown the registration mark and at least one body inside the wreckage.[41]

On 7 February, a body was recovered from the wreckage and was taken to the Isle of Portland to be passed to the Dorset coroner,[42][43] where it was identified as that of Sala, by means of fingerprint evidence.[44][45] Attempts to recover the aircraft wreckage were unsuccessful and poor weather conditions forced the salvage team to return the ROV to the ship.[46] On 11 February, the results of a post-mortem reported that Sala had died of "head and trunk injuries".[45]

The daughter of the pilot David Ibbotson launched a crowdfunding appeal to locate his body and on 10 February the fund received a donation of £27,000 from French footballer Kylian Mbappé. Former England captain Gary Lineker also donated £1,000.[47] As of 23 February 2019, £249,000 of the £300,000 target had been raised.[48] The search was to include a dive to the wreck to rule out the body being there, and a helicopter search of coastal areas in the Channel Islands.[49] On 27 February, it was reported that a 20-minute dive to the wreck had discovered no body.[50]


On 23 January, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch opened an investigation into the accident. Assistance is being given by the Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses, Junta de Investigación de Accidentes de Aviación Civil and National Transportation Safety Board.[15] Part of the investigation will cover the operational aspects related to the accident including licensing and flight plans. It was reported that David Ibbotson held a private pilot licence, which would not have permitted him to carry passengers for profit, or to arrange a flight with the sole purpose of carrying a passenger.[51][52][53] It was additionally reported that while at Nantes Atlantique Airport, Ibbotson had posted on Facebook that he was "a bit rusty" with the instrument landing system on the Piper Malibu.[54]

Ibbotson had undergone training to become a commercial pilot between 2012 and 2014, but had dropped out before it was completed.[55] On 30 March, it was reported that Ibbotson suffered from colour blindness, which meant that he was disqualified from holding a night flying rating on his pilot's licence.[56]

After confirming on 4 February that the wreckage of the aircraft had been located, the AAIB stated that it would publish an interim report on their findings within two weeks.[57] A Special Bulletin was issued on 25 February 2019.[5]

On 14 August, it was reported that post mortem tests on Sala's body showed exposure to carbon monoxide with a carboxyhemoglobin level of 58%, which could have led to symptoms including seizure, unconsciousness or a heart attack. The AAIB considers it likely that the pilot would also have been exposed to carbon monoxide. The AAIB said that it had no plans to raise the wreckage of the plane from the seabed, saying "In this case, we consider that it will not add significantly to the investigation and we will identify the correct safety issues through other means."[58][59]

Legal proceedings[edit]

On 29 April 2019, two people were arrested after a photograph showing the dead body of Emiliano Sala during a post-mortem was posted on Twitter.[60] On 23 September 2019, a woman and a man working for a security company were jailed for 14 and 5 months for accessing CCTV footage of Sala's post-mortem at the mortuary in Bournemouth, which had led to the leak of the material.[61]

On 19 June 2019, Dorset Police announced that they had arrested a man on suspicion of manslaughter by an illegal act in respect of the death of Sala. His identity was not made public and he has been released while investigations continue.[62] Several newspapers identified the man as pilot David Henderson, who arranged the flight and had originally intended to fly the plane.[63][64]


  1. ^ The AAIB screenshot of the wreckage shows that the location is UTM 30U 520812.80 5518513.32. This corresponds to 49°49'07.3"N 2°42'38.4"W.
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  4. ^ @GuernseyPolice (23 January 2019). "16.55 update. Harbour Master Captain David Barker says: "I can confirm the name of the pilot is David Ibbotson."" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  5. ^ a b "AAIB Bulletin S1/2019 SPECIAL" (PDF). assets.publishing.service.gov.uk. 25 February 2019. Retrieved 25 February 2019.
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  22. ^ @GuernseyPolice (23 January 2019). "11.30am update There are currently three planes and one helicopter in the air. We are also reviewing satellite imagery and mobile phone data to see if they can be of any assistance in the search. So far today nothing spotted can be attributed to the missing plane" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
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  64. ^ Brown, David (20 June 2019). "Pilot arrested over Channel plane crash death of Emiliano Sala". The Times.

External links[edit]