Manufacturer of ejector seat involved in Red Arrows pilot death 'put many at risk'

Flt Lt Sean Cunningham
Flt Lt Sean Cunningham

An investigation into the death of Red Arrows pilot Sean Cunningham revealed pilots had been put at risk for decades because of issues with the ejection seat used in the aerobatics team's Hawk jets, a court heard.

Flt Lt Cunningham, 35, was thrown 300 feet into the air after his ejection seat unexpectedly activated while he was in the ground preparing for take off at the Arrows' base at RAF Scampton.

His parachute failed to deploy and he fell to the ground still strapped into his ejection seat, suffering fatal injuries.

Lincoln Crown Court heard on Monday how Flt Lt Cunningham's dream was to be a Red Arrows pilot and from the age of 15 he used his money from Saturday jobs to pay for flying lessons.

He tragically died on November 8, 2011, while preparing to fly his Hawk jet from the Arrows' Lincolnshire base to RAF Valley in Anglesey for a routine training flight.

Rex Tedd QC, prosecuting, said: "The ejection was inadvertent. The perspex canopy shattered and the ejection seat was propelled to a height of over 200 feet with Flt Lt Cunningham still strapped in the seat.

"He was 200 feet in the air without a parachute as the shackles had jammed. The impact was non-survivable.

"This tragic incident was the eventuation of the risk that the shackles could jam at low speed or in zero-zero situations."

Mr Tedd said that the subsequent investigation revealed issues with the ejection seat if it activated when the pilot was travelling at low speed or was either preparing for take-off or landing.

He told the court that the lives of pilots had been put at risk for decades because of issues with the ejection seat used in the aerobatics team's Hawk jets.

Questions were raised by in the early 1990s about problems with the seat and warnings were sent to foreign air forces although the warnings were incorrect but no warnings at all were received by either the MoD or the RAF, said Mr Tedd.

The prosecutor told the court that in admitting a breach of health and safety regulations the ejection seat manufacturer Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Ltd accepted that its breach was a substantial or significant cause of the death of Flt Lt Cunningham.

Mr Tedd said: "Martin-Baker provided ejection seats fitted to all Hawk aircraft in the RAF.

"The company exposed all RAF pilots who flew the Hawk to a material risk. That includes all pilots who flew with the Red Arrows. On occasions the pilot would take a passenger with him. When this was the case the passenger would be exposed to the same risk as the pilot. The risk persisted from the early 1970s through to November 2011.

"The issue was that if the pilot was ejected from his or her Hawk at zero-zero or low speed conditions the shackles would not release but would jam together. The result would be that the main parachute would not deploy or open.

"If that occurred, the pilot having started the ejection process would be several hundred feet in the air. There could be only one result and that would be the death of the pilot."

Mr Tedd said that a claim by the company made in a press statement that events that led to Flt Lt Cunningham's death was an "isolated incident" was inaccurate.

"The failure exposed to risk many pilots over a lengthy period. It was not isolated."

Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Ltd has admitted a charge brought under section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 that on or before November 8, 2011, it failed to conduct its undertaking in relation to the design, manufacture, supply and support of the Mark 10b ejection seat in a way that did not expose non-employees, including Flt Lt Cunningham, to risk.

The charge particularised the non-deployment of the main parachute attached to the ejection seat during low speed or zero-zero ejections as a risk.

Flt Lt Cunningham, who was from Coventry, had just completed his first season with the Arrows and held the position of Red 5 in the formation team at the time of his death

He was the second member of the team to die tragically within three months following the loss of Flt Lt Jon Egging whose Hawk jet crashed during a display at an air show in Dorset.

The hearing continues tomorrow (Tuesday).