Emiliano Sala and pilot exposed to harmful carbon monoxide, says Air Accident Investigation Branch

14 August 2019, 14:13 | Updated: 15 August 2019, 07:15

Footballer Emiliano Sala and his pilot David Ibbotson were exposed to harmful levels of carbon monoxide in the cockpit of their private plane when it crashed in the English Channel on January 21, the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) said.

Tests on the striker's body found enough evidence of the harmful gas to cause a heart attack, seizure or unconsciousness, an interim report by the AAIB stated.

It is likely that Mr Ibbotson was also "affected to some extent" by exposure to carbon monoxide, the document added.

The AAIB said the gas can "reduce or inhibit a pilot's ability to fly an aircraft depending on the level of that exposure".

Argentine footballer Sala signed for Cardiff City from French club Nantes for £15m on January 18.

Mr Ibbotson, 59, of Crowle, Lincolnshire flew Sala from Cardiff to Nantes in a Piper Malibu aircraft the following day.

The return flight - which crashed in the Channel - was on January 21.

The AAIB said it was working with the aircraft and engine manufacturers and the National Transportation Safety Board in the US "to identify possible pathways through which CO might enter the cabin of this type of aircraft".

The report added: "Work is also continuing to investigate pertinent operational, technical, organisational and human factors which might have contributed to the accident."

Daniel Machover, of Hickman and Rose solicitors, lawyers for the Sala family, said: "That dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide have been found in Emiliano's body raises many questions for the family.

"How he died will be determined at the inquest in due course. The family believe that a detailed technical examination of the plane is necessary.

"The family and the public need to know how the carbon monoxide was able to enter the cabin. Future air safety rests on knowing as much as possible on this issue.

"Emiliano's family call on the AAIB to salvage the wreckage of the plane without further delay."

In response to the call to recover the aircraft wreckage, the AAIB said that would not "add significantly to the investigation".

An AAIB spokesperson said: "The reasons for our decision not to recover the aircraft wreckage have been explained in detail to both families concerned.

"In February our underwater search operation successfully located the wreckage, recovered the passenger's body and captured substantial video evidence from the scene using a remotely operated vehicle. It was not possible at the time to recover the wreckage.

"We have carefully considered the feasibility and merits of returning to attempt to recover the wreckage. 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.

"In making our decision, we took into account the high cost of underwater recovery, the evidence we collected in February and the risk that, after a violent impact with the sea, the wreckage would not yield definitive evidence."

A Cardiff spokesperson said: "CCFC is concerned at the AAIB's latest report which once again highlights that the aircraft used for Emiliano Sala was not appropriate.

"We continue to believe that those who were instrumental in arranging its usage are held to account for this tragedy."

Piston engine aircraft such as the Piper Malibu involved in the crash produce high levels of carbon monoxide, the interim report said.

The gas is normally conveyed away from the aircraft through the exhaust system but poor sealing or leaks into the heating and ventilation system can enable it to enter the cabin.

Several devices are available to alert pilots over the presence of carbon monoxide.

The AAIB said they are not mandatory but can "alert pilots or passengers to a potentially deadly threat".

Investigators have previously said the validity of Mr Ibbotson's licence will form a key part of their inquiry.

The type of licence he held meant he could only fly passengers in the European Union on a cost-sharing basis, rather than for commercial flights.

A full accident report is expected to be published next year.