The Sala affair: Anniversary update added.

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.