Reflections on the man who piloted the plane that plunged footballer Emiliano Sala to his death

When footballer Emiliano Sala died in a plane crash, most of the coverage was about him. But what of the pilot who was lost too? Chase reporter CHRIS BRAYFORD knew him and writes about this popular family man.

When footballer Emiliano Sala died in a plane crash, most of the coverage  was about him. But what of the pilot who was lost too? Chase reporter CHRIS BRAYFORD knew him and writes about this popular family man.

A DREAM transfer to play in one of European football’s top leagues turned into a living nightmare with ramifications continuing to be felt around the world.

Argentinian striker Emiliano Sala’s name continues to be met with an equal sense of heartbreak and sadness following the devastating circumstances surrounding his death.

He was onboard a Piper Malibu aircraft from Nantes Atlantique to Cardiff Airport on January 21, 2019 which was operated by David Ibbotson.

Sala had just completed a £15 million transfer to Neil Warnock’s then Premier League side Cardiff City.

It was supposed to be a transfer that would save the club from relegation and fulfil an athlete’s ambition to play in one of the best, if not the best, leagues in the world.

Unfortunately things didn’t end that way.

The plane crash-landed into the English Channel near Guernsey on January 21 and was found by an underwater search and rescue team on February 3.

Sala was found among wreckage of the plane just three days later and his death was confirmed on February 7, 2019.

But to this very day, over three years later, Ibbotson’s body has never been found or recovered.

Despite the disputed circumstances and legal issues which have come to light since the events unfolded, Mr Ibbotson was a kind, decent and lovely man.

He lived in Crowle, near Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire, and was a gas fitter by trade.

Piloting aircraft was his passion and something he loved to do.

David had gained vast experience dropping parachutists as a private pilot.

I grew up in the same village, called Crowle, with his family and went to school with his children, Danielle and Bradley, at St Norbert’s Primary and then St Bede’s Secondary School in Scunthorpe.

His wife Nora would be a regular at the school gates to pick the children up after classes had ended with a smile and a wave.

Crowle in itself is a quaint little place with only a handful of shops — very much undisturbed by modernity and somewhere which has virtually stayed the same for hundreds of years, barring the odd Tesco and Co-op.

Former 1990s Milk Tray man Graham Rogers — once linked to play James Bond after Sean Connery’s exit from the role — also lived in the village for some time before his death in 2021.

Scunthorpe’s landscape has been dominated by conversations surrounding the future of steelworks and how the town would impact from an impending closure — which is never too far away from a reality.

Full of green fields and open countryside, North Lincolnshire is the place where David called home.

He once came to ‘DJ’ our leaver disco at the end of the school year at St Norbert’s.

I remember he brought a lot of joy to so many children’s faces — including my own and his daughter Danielle, who I was in the same school year with.

David did a fantastic job of entertaining the kids, without asking for any money, just to put a smile on somebody’s face.

You’d sometimes see him walking down Fieldside in Crowle where he’d stop by and ask people how they were.

He was thoughtful that way.

No-one could have predicted the way life would unfold just some 14 years later.

Despite an extensive search and rescue operation following the accident, led by David Mearns, the investigation to find David Ibbotson ceased on February 27.

Determined to continue the search, Danielle started a fundraiser to help bring her father home which raised over £250,000.

French superstar striker Kylian Mbappe reportedly donated 60,000 euros towards the search to find Ibbotson and Sala.

Nora, David’s wife, and Danielle appeared on Good Morning Britain in February 2019 to restart the search for David’s body.

“We are still holding on,” Nora said.

“We can’t leave him out there on his own.

“We just want him home.

“Our family is very close and we are stronger together.

“David has been a brilliant husband and supported us all.

“Our family unit will be back knowing he is there.”

When told about the news, Danielle said police officers had come to their house to reveal that her dad was missing.

“I just picked up the phone and started ringing my dad because I didn’t want it to be him,” Danielle said.

“I was so lucky to have him as a dad.

“When he hugged you, he would lift you up from the floor.

“He loved us all so much.

“We don’t know where we can go from here.

“As a family we want someone to go and find him to have that last proper look.

“It might take a long time but I don’t want this to be it.”

And of course, the family of Emiliano Sala have suffered in equal measure.

The entire footballing family has mourned his loss.

Sala played 236 games in total for Crato, Orleans, Niort, Bordeaux, Caen, Nantes and scored 95 goals — with Cardiff his last official club.

Neil Warnock said he had his worst week in football when Sala disappeared.

“I’ve been in football management now for 40 years and it’s by far the most difficult week in my career by an absolute mile,” Warnock said at the time.

“From a personal point of view I’ve never experienced anything like it.

“It’s unknown territory I think.

“Things like this just don’t happen — or you don’t think they happen.”

Warnock, who guided the Millers to Championship safety in 2016, had just been thrashed 3-0 by Newcastle United when Sala’s transfer had been confirmed on January 19 and Cardiff were sitting in the bottom three with just 19 points.

They’d only scored 19 Premier League goals all season and conceded 44.  

The Argentinian’s impressive 12 goals in 19 league games for the French club was supposed to be seen as the magical tonic to give the Bluebirds a glimmer of hope of staying in the Premier League.

Cardiff were eventually relegated in 18th place on 34 points — just two points from Brighton who survived.

They scored 34 goals in total — the second joint worst alongside Fulham.

Their top league goalscorers only racked up five goals between them (Victor Camrasa and Bobby Reid).

For many, including Warnock, Sala could easily have been the man to score a last minute winning goal, a hat-trick or a decisive point.

He could have saved them from relegation.

But this is only said looking back with hindsight.

What matters the most in this situation is that two people lost their lives.

Rumblings of all the details have only caused even more heartache and pain.

So whatever your thoughts on what happened and the people responsible, remember that Emiliano and David have families who would give everything they had for just one more moment with them.