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Spanish former pilot of plane in which soccer player Emiliano Sala died: “It didn’t fall to pieces”

Eduardo Hernández talks to EL PAÍS about his previous experiences flying the aircraft that crashed over the English Channel while carrying the Argentine forward

Spanish pilot Hernández and his family next to the plane that crashed with Sala on board.
Spanish pilot Hernández and his family next to the plane that crashed with Sala on board.

Eduardo Hernández Vidaurreta is an experienced 65-year-old pilot from Burgos in northern Spain. Between 2012 and 2015, he was in charge of a small Piper PA-46 Malibu, with registration number N264DB – the aircraft that crashed over the English Channel on January 21 with Argentine soccer player Emiliano Sala on board. The body of the Cardiff City forward was found in the wreckage on Wednesday but questions still remain about how the accident happened.

If someone is looking for a mechanical reason to explain the crash, I think they are wrong

Pilot Eduardo Hernández

Hernández’s story sheds some light on the unresolved tragedy and the plane, which has become the center of a British investigation since its remains were found last Sunday. “This plane was marvelous to fly. It would surprise me if the accident was due to a mechanical failure,” he tells EL PAÍS by phone.

Hernández has been a commercial pilot since 1976. He has also held a North American pilot’s license since September 1989, according to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It was this license that put him in command of the Piper Malibu. “The plane belonged to an aviation school in Florida that used it a lot. In 2012, it was brought to Spain by a friend of mine, who was a good pilot as well but didn’t have the North American license. So he asked me to be his chauffeur,” explains Hernández.

The friend was a man named Roberto Sastre, a businessman from Valladolid who bought the plane in 2012 for around €500,000, he explains to EL PAÍS. “It was a whim, I wanted to give it to my family as a present,” Sastre explains. “In fact, I only used it for recreational purposes, never for work. I would ask Eduardo to take me to places because he had the appropriate qualification. I went with my wife, I went to the port of Málaga one weekend or to the Seville Fair, for example.”

Tributes left outside a stadium in France in memory of Emiliano Sala.
Tributes left outside a stadium in France in memory of Emiliano Sala. REUTERS

The Piper Malibu clocked 200 flight hours in four years, or 50 hours each year, according to Hernández’s notes. “It didn’t give me any problems. If someone is looking for a mechanical reason to explain the airplane’s crash, I think they are wrong,” says Hernández.

This contrasts with the WhatsApp voice message Sala sent to his family while he was on board the light aircraft on the doomed journey: “It feels like the plane is falling to pieces [...] If you don’t hear from me in an hour and a half, I don’t know if they are going to send someone to look for me because they are not going to find me [...] Dad, I’m scared.”

At 9.23pm the plane disappeared off radar as it was flying over the English Channel

“The plane didn’t fall to pieces, I’m sure it didn’t,” maintains Hernánez, who says the aircraft had a new engine when it was brought to Spain. “It wasn’t the original from 1984. That’s not allowed by the FAA,” he explains, referring to the year the plane was manufactured in the United States.

According to Hernández, between 2012 and 2015 “the engine was not changed again” but its propeller was reviewed once by a workshop in Germany.

Hernández says the plane was equipped with life jackets and emergency oxygen tanks when it was sold to the British company Southern Aircraft Consultancy Inc Trustee on August 25, 2015, according to the receipt Sastre still has. “I sold it to the English because I needed money,” Sastre explains. “The company that bought the plane sent a mechanic to Spain to inspect it. They didn’t find anything important. The plane could be sold, it was in good condition.”

Willing to cooperate

It was on that occasion that Hernández met David Henderson, the British pilot who would take over captaining the private aircraft. For unknown reasons, Henderson did not fly the plane that was set to fly Sala from Nantes in France to Cardiff in the United Kingdom. Instead the plane was captained by 59-year-old British pilot David Ibbotson, who remains missing after the crash. According to the FAA, Ibbotson did not have a commercial license. Soccer agent Mark McKay, who arranged the flight, has maintained that it was a private flight.

The Piper Malibu took off on January 21 at 8.15pm from Nantes. At 9.23pm it disappeared off the radar as it was flying over the English Channel. Minutes before, Ibbotson was granted authorization to drop from an altitude of 1,500 meters to 700 meters. Both Hernández and Sala have told EL PAÍS they are willing to cooperate with the British investigation into the crash.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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