What caused Emiliano Sala's plane disappearance?

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Emiliano Sala Nantes

On the night of January 22 into January 23, reports started to break that a plane carrying Cardiff City striker Emiliano Sala had gone missing over the English Channel.

The Argentine was travelling from Nantes, where he had been saying goodbye to his former team-mates, to south Wales, where he had just agreed to move for a club-record fee of £15 million ($19m).

He was on a private plane, a single-engine Piper PA-46, which was being piloted by David Ibbotson, who allegedly used a loophole in the law to allow him to take paying passengers for “reasonable expenses”.  

The flight left France at 7:15pm and was flying at 5,000ft when the pilot contracted Jersey air traffic control to request descent. While at 2,300ft, the plane lost contact and disappeared from radar near the Casquets lighthouse, eight miles north-west of Alderney, which is an area infamous among mariners for shipwrecks.

An initial search for the vehicle turned up nothing over the course of three days, but a privately funded vessel found the missing plane using sonar equipment after six hours of searching on February 3.

The following day it was revealed that a body was visible - subsequently confirmed to be Sala - in the wreckage. It had been discovered some 67 metres below the surface of the ocean.

But what happened to the plane and what caused it to crash?

What happened to Emiliano Sala's plane?

Emiliano Sala Nantes

It is the job of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) in the UK to determine what exactly caused the incident and just as with the helicopter tragedy from earlier this season involving Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, it has the potential to become a drawn-out affair.

In this case, it is further complicated by the fact that the wreckage is underwater, though investigators were able to publish an interim report on February 25 based on the extensive video footage of the wreckage that was available to them.

The AAIB report confirmed that the plane fell thousands of feet in the space of 20 seconds shortly after the pilot requested a descent.

The aircraft had made a 180-degree turn before plummeting and it was found approximately 30 metres from where the final radar readings situated it, which would appear to indicate a sharp final descent.

Images of the wreckage show extensive damage, with the report stating that the aircraft's main body was in three parts, which were held together by electrical and flying control cables.

The engine had disconnected from the cockpit area and significant parts of the wings were missing.

The investigation is ongoing and the stated aim of the AAIB is to refine its analysis of what happened, assess the possible implications of weather conditions and to consider the regulatory requirements related to airworthiness, permissions and licensing.

Body found in search for Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotso

While it has been difficult for investigators to confirm exact details, there has been plenty of speculation regarding the events leading up to the crash.

It has been reported, for instance, that the pilot struggled to get the plane airborne three or four times at Nantes-Atlantique airport. 

Commander Jorge Polanco told TyC Sports that he believes flying conditions would have been very dangerous for the type of plane that they were travelling in.

“The Piper Malibu is an excellent single-engine aircraft, which has the capacity for seven people, but I am very surprised that they have been doing this operation flying at night, with what is the European winter at the moment,” he told the Argentine TV station. 

“It's like flying in Antarctica in the winter with an aeroplane of that size, which can suffer from what is called icing, thus stopping the engine and I think something related to that has happened.”

The Civil Aviation Authority’s Richard Taylor, however, has suggested that this may not be the cause.

“Single engine aircraft can be chartered. We don't know what the status of this particular flight was - whether a commercial or private flight,” Wales Online quotes him as having said.

“There's nothing preventing a single-engine aircraft flying commercially at night. They were restricted to daytime under commercial operations until a few years ago for a turbine engine aircraft.

“They can now fly at night and in difficult conditions. But we don't know what engine this aircraft has.”

Meanwhile, an audio WhatsApp message sent by Sala while on the plane was published in his homeland by Ole and suggests the aircraft was not in the condition it should have been.

“Anyway guys, I’m up in this plane that feels like it's falling to pieces, and I’m going to Cardiff… If in an hour and a half you have no news from me, I don't know if they are going to send someone to look for me because they cannot find me, but you will know… Dad, I'm scared!” he is purported to have said. 

It is likely to be months before a definitive answer as to what caused the crash is discovered, and if the AAIB cannot find a suitable manner of excavating the wreckage from the sea floor, it is possible that one will never be given.