Review hears that design flaw in firing handle or in parachute may have been responsible for death of Sean Cunningham
Two separate faults could have led to the death of a Red Arrows pilot who was thrown 200ft in the air from his plane and then fell to the ground still strapped to his seat without his parachute opening, a pre-inquest review heard.
A design fault with the firing handle may have caused Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham’s seat to eject while his Hawk T1 plane was sitting on the tarmac at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, the review heard. His parachute would have saved his life but another fault meant the main chute failed to open.
The 35-year-old was airlifted to hospital following the incident on 8 November 2011 but he was pronounced dead.
Tom Kark QC, representing the pilot’s family, told the hearing at Lincoln Cathedral Centre on Thursday that his clients wanted to know what had previously been done to address the fault with the Hawk T1 seat firing handle, the BBC reported.
“Obviously, on behalf of the family, they would like the widest exploration possible of why their son and brother died,” Kark said.
He added that the family also wanted to know what action had been taken to prevent other pilots being put “in a similar dangerous position”.
The fault with the parachute related to the shackle linking the seat and the drogue parachute – a smaller chute deployed before the main one. The drogue parachute opened but the main one failed to.
The full inquest into the incident is due to start on 9 January and is expected to last three weeks.
It is expected to hear evidence from 40 witnesses, including an expert on ejector seats.
The fatal incident was captured on video but the “distressing” footage might not be shown.
Lincolnshire Police investigated the death but the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to pursue criminal charges.
The Health and Safety Executive is still investigating and will make recommendations after the completion of the full inquest.
The incident bewildered senior RAF officers who say the ejector seat in a Hawk is almost impossible to activate accidentally, requiring considerable pressure from the pilot. The parachute should have opened regardless.
Cunningham was an experienced pilot with an exemplary record, who had flown in the Iraq war on close air-support missions for British and US ground troops.
After his death the MoD implemented a temporary ban on non-essential flying in aircraft with ejector seats similar to those in the Hawk T1. The Red Arrows have used the dual-control BAE Systems Hawk T1, which has a top speed of Mach 1.2, since 1979.