What caused Emiliano Sala's plane disappearance?

The wreckage of the plane carrying the Cardiff City striker and pilot David Ibottson has been found - but what happened to cause the accident?

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 19:15 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, yet 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 there was a body visible in the wreckage, which was discovered some 67 metres below the surface of the ocean.

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

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 is liable to be a drawn-out affair.

In this case, it is complicated by the fact that the wreckage is underwater, though it has announced that it plans to publish an interim report “within one month of the accident occurring”.

Speaking to the BBC, David Mearns, who was leading the privately funded search mission, indicated that it is the AAIB’s intention to salvage the wreckage.

“They had contracted the vessel they are using, the Geo III, for three days. They wouldn't be able to recover it in that period of time but that's probably what they're evaluating,” he said. “If they can dive today [Monday], the weather's not great today, then hopefully they'll get some more information about how they would attempt that recovery.”

The AAIB, however, have since announced that their primary goal will be to recover the body before any attempt is made to lift the aircraft.

“We are attempting to recover the body. If we are successful, we will consider the feasibility of recovering the aircraft wreckage,” the AAIB said in a statement.

“Strong tidal conditions mean we can only use the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) for limited periods each day and this will mean that progress is slow.

“Regardless of the results, we will not be making a further statement until the families have been informed.”

If the cause of the accident is to be discovered, though, Mearns says it is vital that the plane is recovered.

“The Air Accidents Investigation Branch will be able to rule things out or rule things in, that's the normal investigative process for any crash, so I think it's imperative that the plane is recovered, and now even more so now we know someone is down there,” he said on Wednesday.

While there is a good deal of speculation as to what might have happened to the plane, there is little that has been confirmed to this point.

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.”

Body found in search for Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotso

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.