Emiliano Sala: Rescuers give up hope of finding missing footballer alive as experts claim the plane was downed by ice

Tom Morgan
David Ibbotson was thought to be the pilot of the aircraft

Rescuers searching for the £15 million Cardiff City footballer, Emiliano Sala, admitted they had given up hope last night, amid fears that his single engine aircraft had crashed into the English channel after the propeller became blocked with ice.

The Argentinian born striker sent a message to relatives shortly before taking off expressing fears over the state of the 25-year-old aircraft,

It has also emerged that the pilot, Dave Ibbotson, 60, had to abort three attempted takeoffs and had joked with friends that he was a "bit rusty" in the days before the doomed flight.

The Piper PA-46 Malibu left Nantes airport in north west France at around 7.15pm on Monday evening and was on route to Cardiff, where Sala was looking forward to joining up with his new teammates.

Just after an hour into the flight the pilot asked air traffic control to reduce altitude from 5,000 ft to 2,300 feet.

But a short time later the Guernsey coastguard was alerted after the aircraft disappeared from radar screens.

David Ibbotson was thought to be the pilot of the aircraft

Aviation experts suggested the privately chartered single-engine aircraft should not have been risking the flight in the icy conditions.

Alastair Rosenschein, a former pilot, said: "It's already a fairly risky crossing to do in a single engine aircraft, especially in winter and definitely at night. There are icing problems too. It's a strange thing to do though to go and fly over water with one engine at night in winter because if your engine goes you're going in the water".

Mystery continued to surround who the owner of the £100 per hour aircraft was, with Cardiff City insisting Sala had rejected their offer of a commercial flight, in favour of sorting out his own arrangements.

A source at the club said they had launched an investigation to find out why their record breaking signing had gambled with his life on the "risky" Channel crossing.

Neil Warnock took his players on a sombre first training session since the tragedy on Wednesday.

Players and staff were described by one source as feeling "absolutely terrible" and "in the dark" about the circumstances of Sala's flight arrangements.

Sala, who had been in prolific goal scoring form for Nantes in recent months, had been a dream signing for the club.

Willie McKay, a well-known agent, was reported to have played a part in negotiating the club's record-breaking deal, but he told The Telegraph he had nothing to do with Sala's flight.

He told The Telegraph: "I have had family members ringing me about this and it's just not true. None of it."

Fans have left scarves and flowers at the Cardiff City stadium 

The aircraft, which was built in 1984, is registered in the United States rather than Britain through a company based in Norfolk.

The firm, Southern Aircraft Consultancy, charges owners around £500 pounds per year to register their aircraft with the Federal Aviation Authority, which means it is harder for the owners to be identified.

Three years ago the Piper aircraft, which can carry six passengers, was delivered to the UK from Spain by a British pilot called, David Henderson.

He told the BBC at the time of the dangers of flying single engine aircraft over water.

He said: "One of the problems we can encounter is that ice can build up on the surfaces of the aircraft, on the propeller and on the wings and if is gets too great then ultimately the aeroplane would stop flying and the only way in most of the aeroplanes we fly of getting rid of ice is to descend into warmer air and the ice will dissipate."

Guernsey Police said rescue workers had launched three aircraft and one helicopter in a bid to find the missing plane.

The aircraft scanned 280 sq miles of a target area after reviewing tidal and weather information, while coastal areas around Alderney and off-lying rocks and islands were also examined.

But the search was called off on Wednesday evening with local police saying they would take a decision whether to resume the search on Thursday morning.

However experienced rescuers warned there was "no hope" of finding the missing pair.

A tearful Horacio Sala, father of the footballer, speaks during an interview outside his home in Progreso, Argentina Credit: AP Photo/Mauricio Garin

John Fitzgerald, Chief officer of Channel Islands Air Search, said "even the most fit person" would only last a few hours in the water.

Mr Fitzgerald said: "Sadly, I really don't think, personally, there is any hope. At this time of year the conditions out there are pretty horrendous if you are actually in the water."

Sala had taken flown in the aircraft from Cardiff to Nantes on Saturday evening after finalising his move to the Premier League club.

He had wanted to say goodbye to friends and former colleagues at the French club before embarking on his new career at Cardiff.

But he had told friends he was worried about the return flight because the outbound trip had been "bumpy".

Mr Ibbotson, a highly experienced pilot, from the village of Crowle near Scunthorpe, had joked with friends on social media that he was a "a bit rusty with the ILS", thought to be a reference to the aircraft's Instrument Landing System.

Shortly before take off, Sala also sent a WhatsApp voice message to family saying he was "so scared".

Media in Argentina reported he said: "I'm on a plane that looks like it's going to fall apart."