The Sala affair: Anniversary update added and comment following publication of the AAIB Report.

The tragedy of the young footballer Emilio Sala’s untimely death in an avoidable light aircraft crash has opened a can of worms in the general aviation world that seems to have been aided by the internet and misuse of American regulations.

By using US registered aircraft some appear to be avoiding regulatory scrutiny and indulging in what have become known as “grey charters.” Essentially, this involved skirting the limits of – or even blatantly ignoring – the rules regarding a private pilot taking payment for flying from A to B.

The regulations are intended to allow private pilots to share the cost with genuine friends who, let’s say, fly over to France for lunch and split the cost. However, adverts online seem to offer flights anywhere and at any time you like; which is clearly not in the spirit of the law and probably outwith it altogether.

The pilot of the Sala aircraft may have been experienced but so far as we can tell at this stage, he was not a qualified commercial pilot and had no instrument flying qualifications. Those two factors alone should have made the flight impossible and given the end result we know why.

If you have not experienced it, it can be hard to imagine how difficult it is to remain orientated and in control when flying in cloud and there are good reasons why specific qualifications are required to fly on instruments.

I have no wish to be negative about Mr Ibbotson, the pilot, but he was probably well out of his comfort zone and also his ability and experience level as well.

It can get difficult and frightening very quickly in poor weather and at night and I feel for both of them. Most professional pilots will have had scary experiences but usually survive them due to experience and training. Why Mr Ibbotson did not refuse to fly in conditions beyond his ability is another discussion; I have declined to fly myself when circumstances are not right and never regretted the decision.

When the full report is published we will know more but my hope is that the authorities will remove this “grey charter” world from the “too difficult box” and start prosecuting people.

UPDATE January 2020

Ever since the AAIB released information that the young man’s body had high levels of Carbon MOnoxide in his tissue, interest seems to have abated. Presumably some have assumed that the issue of an illegal charter was no longer relevant as the pilot may have lost control for the same reason of poisning rather than lack of qualification and training; I would contest this view.

Whilst it is hard to obtain serious evidence on the condition of the aircraft it was not a certified public transport aircraft and so the legality and competency issue is still valid. Had Mr Sala been flown in a public transport aircraft operated by a fully compliant charter operator the crash would not have happened.

I would hope that police investigations continue and take this into account.

Update following publication of the AAIB Report, March 2020

The report on this tragedy is a very impressive technical exercise in which the AAIB succeeded in reconstructing the flight in amazing detail. Inevitably with an aircraft that was not equipped with any kind of recorder, they began with an underwater camera survey and in cooperation with the American NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) using data from pervious accidents of the same aircraft type; put together the probable sequence of events.

Areas of uncertainty are remarkably few and do not impinge on the basic reasons for the crash. What the report confirms is that the pilot lost control of the aircraft and having done so it crashed to the sea just north of Guernsey. What they have added that I had not assumed is that the aircraft broke up in flight due to the design stresses being exceeded, and by a significant margin.

I do not intend to go into all the technical methods used by the investigators; anyone interested in the detail can read the report on line easily. The toxicology report on Mr Sala showed CO levels of 58%, which means it was near certain that he was unconscious at the time of the crash; a tiny crumb of comfort for those close to him perhaps but it was still a needless waste of a young life.

It is possible that the pilot was also affected by CO, which is odourless and invisible, but they make the point that whilst he shared a cabin with the passenger it is possible that he had a lower exposure. He was clearly lucid in radio transmissions shortly before the loss of control and so it seems likely that he was less affected, although it is not possible to establish this as his body has never been found.

It is equally possible that he lost control due to the simple inability to fly the aircraft in the prevailing conditions. Whilst he had instrument qualifications, he did not have recent instrument flying experience, which is vital to maintain he required skills. Single pilot operation is such weather is very challenging and current practice very important. The autopilot was placarded as inoperative, although there were indications that he had used it.

Either way, he was not qualified to operate the fight and so the prudent course of action would be to stay in Nantes. However, the evidence shows that he was to be paid for the job, which in addition to being illegal, puts a pressure on him to complete the task, rather than take the safer option.

The difference between a private pilot’s training, qualification and experience and that of a fully qualified commercial pilot is a yawning gulf. You would not place a recently qualified car driver at the wheel of a formula 1 car; not ss [perfect analogy but the gap in experience and skill levels is considerable in both examples.

I sincerely hope that the CAA and authorities stop the so called “grey charter” world from operating as it puts the public at risk. An air taxi service operator has to have an Air Operators Certificate and the requirements from that are specifically designed that the aircraft is maintained to commercial standards – which this one was not – and that the crew will be suitably qualified for the job. If the cost of hiring an aircraft looks too cheap to be true, then it almost certainly is.

Update October 2021

The UK CAA and police have instigated a proecution of the aircraft operator. The trial is underway at present. This is a very positive development in the war against the so called “grey charters”. In reality illegal operations with risks that the public will not be aware of.

Update 28th October 2021

A Jury in Cardiff has found the defendant, David Henderson, guilty of both charges including endangering the safety of an aircraft, for his part in arranging the illegal flight from Nantes to Cardiff, in which both the pilot and passenger died. This is a fine verdict and will hopefully raise public awareness of the risks involved in flying private aircraft in questionable circumstances.

The defendant’s lawyer demonstrated wilful ignorance of the reality or attempted to convince a lay jury of “alternative facts,” during his defence; an extract is below.

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 (my bold)

Try telling that to the thousands of professional pilots who have worked hard to achieve the (entirely different) required standard in written exams, flight tests, medical tests and of course, instrument flying, the very crux of the problem with Mr Ibbotson.

Professional pilots have to not only achieve these standards to obtain the professional licence but they are tested six monthly, annually and regulated and monitored in an entirely different regime; there is simply no comparison.

There is also a matter of currency. A pro pilot flies almost every day, in all kinds of weather and terrain, honing those hard-won skills on a regular basis. To use an analogy; compare a competent first aider with a para-medic or doctor.

There are many first-rate private pilots but the standards required for the licence are light years apart and the regulatory and monitoring regimes are chalk and cheese. Ibbotson had quite a lot of hours but most were flying a parachute aircraft. They only operate in good weather, light winds and never go anywhere, just up and down at the same airfield. This type of experience does not fit a pilot for long distance flights in difficult weather.

We know from the AAIB report on this accident that CO possibly played a role in the crash but David Ibbotson was clearly trying to stay clear of cloud and bad weather and during this process, he lost control of the aircraft and it went into the sea. A professional, instrument rated pilot would have either filed an instrument flight plan and flown above the weather or would have flown through it whatever altitude they were at.

In addition, the source of the CO leak is the aircraft exhaust muffler. One an earlier engineering check it was inspected but only visually. Professional UK regulations would have required a pressure test; not required under US rules. That may have been the difference between a leak being detected or not, we will probably never know for sure.

Ibbotson should never have taken off from Nantes to conduct a night flight anyway and he was probably worried about the weather now that the flight had been delayed, so why did he press on?

We can only conjecture but if you have accepted payment to do a job, there is pressure on you to complete that job. PPL accident statistics are littered with pilots who have pressed on when they should have called it quits; it is sadly not uncommon for PPL holders to do that even without the pressure of a commercial payment.

Again, I know excellent PPL holders but the standards they adhere to will vary and are subject to much personal discretion. A commercial or airline pilot will operate in a regulatory and company framework that sets required standards that must be met, every time

Another element in this sad tale is that of N registered aircraft operating in the UK. Why do so many aircraft owners buy an aircraft in the US and then keep it on the American register rather than register it in the UK? A question that might be asked of our own Secretary of Transport, Grant Shapps. He owns an N registered aircraft himself.

The answer is simple. The regulatory standards are lighter, we are not in the FAA’s backyard and a US PPL is both cheaper and easier to acquire if the owner chooses the fly 100% under US rules. The UK CAA will not accept a US PPL as acceptable qualification for a UK PPL, you must do the whole UK course and tests to get a British licence.

The same is not true the other way around. I have a US licence, (in fact an ATPL but marked not for use for commercial purposes) that I obtained one day in California by simply walking into the local FAA office, producing my UK licence, paying the admin fee and walking out 20 minutes later. I then went of and rented an aeroplane.

This is not to say the things are unsafe in the US but aviation is a more common means of transport there and the systems are geared to facilitate that. Put simply, things are different in America.

The British rules were created that way for good reason and the tragic Sala affair is an eloquent demonstration why.

I have yet to comment on the use of a single engine aircraft for such a flight; over water and at night. An AOC holder would not have done that either.