Inquest hears Red Arrows pilot was hurled into air

Gainsborough Standard In Court logo
Gainsborough Standard In Court logo

Horrified colleagues of a Red Arrows pilot watched helplessly as his ejection seat went off while he was preparing to take off throwing him 300 feet into the air, an inquest heard.

Flt Lt Sean Cunningham, 35, who lived at Burton Waters near Lincoln, was about to take off from the Red Arrows’ base at RAF Scampton when he was hurled into the air.

The experienced pilot plummeted back down to earth still strapped into his ejection seat after his parachute failed to open.

He suffered multiple injuries and was airlifted to hospital but was pronounced dead within an hour.

The hearing heard at the time of the tragedy on 8th November 2011 the Red Arrows were at least 20 per cent short of engineers, with aircraft being serviced by staff unauthorised to carry out the work.

Fellow Arrows Pilot Flt Lt James McMillan, who was also preparing to take off, said: “I heard what seemed like an enormous bang. It was very loud. The first thing I thought was that there was something wrong with my aircraft because it was so loud.”

“I then realised it wasn’t me and it must have been Sean. I looked across to him. His canopy was missing. Sean wasn’t in his jet. It was obvious there had been an ejection.”

“I recall looking up and seeing Sean in his seat. I realised something was horribly wrong. He came back down and hit the ground just to the left of my aircraft.”

The inquest heard officers had repeatedly raised issues about the lack of manpower and the inexperience of the ground crew. At the time of his death a meeting had been scheduled at which officers put their case for extra resources. The meeting took place in the week after the incident and led to a £1 million a year increase in the budget to pay for 20 extra engineers.

Chief technician Norman Briggs, who joined the team in April 2011, said he had no experience of working on the Hawk jets used by the Arrows but was left to his own devices after simply being shown round the hanger at their base.

“This was the first time I had worked on the Hawk. There was an induction around the hanger but for aircraft trade work I didn’t have any training at all,” he said.

“I needed to know how it should be done. I didn’t know. It made me feel awful. I was on a sticky wicket from the start.”

The hearing continues.