Emiliano Sala was born on the 31st of October 1998 in Argentina. He was a talented soccer player who moved from Argentina to Europe in order to follow his dream of playing with the elite in his sport. He spent most of his professional career in France but struggled to make an impact until he was signed by Nantes FC in 2015. He made over 100 appearances for this French League 1 club and was its top goal scorer for three consecutive seasons. His impeccable form led to his dream move to the English Premier League, the richest soccer league in the world. It is reputed to be the most watched soccer league throughout the world and arguably the best on the planet. He signed for Cardiff City for a club record fee of £15 million i.e. approximately $18 million in January 2019. Unfortunately, before he could kick a ball in the Premier League, he tragically died in a plane crash in the English Channel, off the coast of Great Britain on the 21st of January 2019. He was a passenger in a Piper Malibu single-engine aircraft flying from his previous club in Nantes and to his new club in Cardiff FC when the aircraft crashed into the sea. The reasons for the crash were shrouded in mystery until the Air Accident Investigation Branch issued its final report just recently. Initially, the wreckage of the plane could not be located despite a three-day search immediately following the accident. It was only after two more searches which resulted in the wreckage of the plane being located and Emiliano Sala's body found. However, the body of the pilot, David Ibbotson, still remains undiscovered to this date. The flight itself should have been uneventful with a short distance between Nantes and Cardiff, only, 265 nautical miles, which begs the question, what went wrong?
The pilot was experienced, only 59 years of age. However, there were certain gaps in his flight experience which point towards possible causes of the crash. For example, the pilot did not hold a Night Rating, therefore he was not qualified to fly at night. From his records it appeared he had little experience of flying in Instrument Meteorological Conditions or operating under Instrument Flight Rules. The flight itself took place at night in the middle of winter in poor weather conditions. Therefore with little instrument experience and with no night rating this flight was a recipe for disaster.
Four minutes prior to the accident the pilot was recorded as being coherent on the radio but then in the last 90 seconds of the flight prior to crashing into the sea the airplane underwent " high bank angles and rates of climb and descent" which would be inconsistent with normal cruise flight. The high speed in combination with the erratic turns may have caused an excessive load factor which led to the break up of the aircraft. Possible explanations for this may be that the pilot was endeavouring to remain in Visual Meteorological Conditions and avoid Instrument Meteorological Conditions. Also he may have been suffering from spatial disorientation due to his lack of training in night flying and lack of recent instrument flying.
The Report recommended that there be a system in place in maintaining accurate and up-to-date records regarding personnel licences, certificates and ratings. The Air Accident Investigation Branch report also highlights the high levels of carbon monoxide found in Emiliano Sala's body following toxicology test. The toxicology report showed that Emiliano Sala would have been "deeply unconscious" when the plane crashed into the sea. Such high levels of carbon monoxide could have triggered a seizure or a heart attack or unconsciousness. Although the body of the pilot has not been found it seems safe to assume that he would also have been affected by the carbon monoxide.
Unfortunately, piston engine planes produce a high level of concentrated carbon monoxide which can enter the plane via holes and cracks in the aircraft. It appears that the carbon monoxide came from exhaust gas which leaked and entered the aircraft cabin via the heating system.
The Report has recommended that it should be compulsory for all such flights to have Carbon Monoxide monitors fitted in the cabin which cost a minimum of less than $50. If a carbon monoxide detector had been on-board it could have warned the pilot and he could have taken alternative action which may have resulted in saving the lives of himself and Emiliano Sala. In fact the aircraft also had life jackets, and although these were not worn by Emiliano Sala despite the flight being mainly over water, an early Carbon Monoxide detection could have resulted in the pilot taking timely evasive action such as ditching the plane in the sea and making use of the life jackets. Also under the pilot’s Private Pilot’s License he was not entitled to fly for compensation or hire i.e. not entitled to be paid for a flight. However, such flights are not uncommon in the world of sport. It may have been that the pilot felt under pressure to undertake the flight due to the fact that he was being paid and also it may have offered him opportunities in the future for similar flights in relation to celebrity sport personalities.
The Report concludes that the casual factors of the air crash were:
1. The Pilot losing control during manually flown turn in order to remain in or regain Visual Meteorological Conditions.
2. This resulted in the break up of the airplane whilst it was manoeuvring at high speed which was greater than the airplane’s maximum design manoeuvrability.
3. The Pilot was affected by Carbon Monoxide poisoning.
An interesting sporting postscript to the story is that the two soccer clubs are in dispute with regard to payment of the £15 million transfer fee. Cardiff City are refusing to pay it because Emiliano Sala did not end up playing for the club but obviously Nantes are demanding payment as a part of its contractual right. This matter is due to be resolved by litigation in the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland later this year.
Footnote: Report on the accident to Piper PA-46-310P Malibu, N264DB 22 nm north-north-west of Guernsey on 21 January 2019-Aircraft Accident Report 1/2020.