Aviation sources said Dave Ibbotson, 59 had only a private pilot’s licence and worked as a heating engineer and disco DJ to fund his passion for planes.
It was unclear last night why the the fun-loving flier — known as “Ibbo” — was trusted to bring the Premier League club’s £15 million record signing from France.
And Air Accident Investigation Branch officials last night confirmed they were probing whether the flight chartered by Sala’s agent was legal.
Sun inquiries also revealed Mr Ibbotson had touted for flying work on “odd-job” Facebook pages and had outstanding debts of more than £18,000.
The dad-of-four, 59, was promoting his plumbing and gas-fitting business and asking friends to search for his website to boost his Google rating before the tragedy.
He was subject to four outstanding county court judgements at the time of the crash.
Mr Ibbotson from Scunthorpe, N.Lincs was also said to have taken on part-time flying jobs, after clocking thousands of hours on less demanding trips ferrying skydivers over jump sites.
My message is please, please, please don’t stop with the search. For me, they are still alive.
He told pals on Facebook he was feeling “a bit rusty” before the aircraft vanished with 28-year-old Argentine striker Sala on board off the Channel Islands on Monday evening.
A pal told The Sun: “Dave’s a terrific pilot with thousands of hours of experience and if he said he was rusty, he would have been joking.
“He has always done it for fun and I was never aware of him being paid to fly in all the 20 years I knew him — but he’d never take the controls of a plane he couldn’t handle.
“His main job was as a self-employed gas engineer but he was a DJ as well in his spare time playing old school stuff — Dave was always the life and soul of the party.”
Another friend said: “I always thought he was a better plumber than he was a pilot.
“We never really considered him a pilot, he was just the man at the controls when parachutists went up.
“I think we knew he did the odd bit of flying on the side to earn a bit of crust — but nothing as big as the France job.
“He’s a good northern lad — he’s always worked hard and played hard.”
Sala’s agent, Mark McKay is reported to have booked Mr Ibbotson to fly the 25-year-old Piper Malibu to and from Nantes after the star pleaded to get back in time to train with his new teammates.
The part-time pilot was on a roster of three or four pilots used by Mr McKay to fly footballers and jockeys.
A Civil Aviation Authority source said: “The issue of whether the trip was undertaken on a commercial basis and the level of the pilot’s qualification will be addressed by the investigation.
“But the priority right now is to find the aircraft and what happened to the people on board.”
Cardiff chiefs said Sala had declined the club’s offer to take a commercial flight from Nantes after saying goodbye to teammates at the French club.
Sala sent audio messages about the "bumpy ride" he was having as the plane hit bad weather near Guernsey.
Bluebirds boss Neil Warnock raised the alarm on Monday night after calling McKay asking why his new star had not arrived.
Mr Ibbotson belonged to three “ferry flight” Facebook groups where companies advertise flying jobs and had worked for Mr McKay before using the same plane.
He flew Nice FC general manager Julien Fournier from Surrey to the French port of Marseille in the single-engined US-registered Piper last year.
A source said: “Pilots are offered cash, airline tickets and hotel rooms in exchange for flying brand new aircraft to customers, or flying customers.
Sadly, I really don't think, personally, there is any hope.
“It’s a great way to make some extra money once you have invested the time and cost in getting your pilot’s licence.”
Mr Ibbotson held a British private pilot's licence allowing him to fly passengers between airports as long as he does not profit from any journey.
But if he would have required a commercial licence if he was paid a fee totalling more than his fuel costs and expenses.
The air-sea search was called off today as the missing Premier League star's heartbroken sister Romina flew from Argentina to meet Warnock.
Experts believe the Piper’s wings may have frozen in the icy conditions and rescue teams said there was “no hope” of finding the pair alive.
Experienced skydiver Mr Ibbotson posted videos of his leaps including a video from Norway which he described as: “What i do at the weekend for fun.”
He was a registered member of the British Parachute Association until 2009 — after which he became a pilot.
Other snaps showed him at parties and restaurants and on trips to Dubai with wife Nora and daughter Danielle.
Channel Islands Air Search said their mission was now a recovery operation with chief officer John Fitzgerald adding there was "no hope" of finding Sala and Mr Ibbotson alive.
He 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."
The French Navy sent a specialist Falcon 50 surveillance aircraft over the Channel to search for wreckage.
Sala's sister Romina tearfully begged rescue teams to continue the search last night.
She said: “My message is please, please, please don’t stop with the search.
For me, they are still alive."
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