Royal Air Force

Ejector seat manufacturer fined more than £1m after Red Arrows death


An ejector seat manufacturer has been fined more than £1m following the death of a pilot from the RAF’s world famous Red Arrows aerobatics team.

Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, who was based at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire, was killed in 2011.

His ejector seat initiated during the pre-flight checks of his Hawk jet while on the ground and stationary at the Lincolnshire airbase.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that a mechanical fault led to the failure of the parachute deployment mechanism designed to bring the 35-year-old pilot to the ground safely. This resulted in the main parachute failing to deploy.

Flt Lt Cunningham suffered multiple serious injuries and was pronounced dead shortly after being airlifted to hospital.

A number of inquiries took place after the incident, including a police investigation, a Ministry of Defence investigation and an inquest.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) worked alongside Lincolnshire Police, the coroner, and the military investigators during the inquiries.

HSE inspectors found that in the 1990s two aircraft manufacturers had made Martin Baker Aircraft Company aware of issues with the drogue and scissor shackles, designed to deploy the main parachute for the ejection seat mechanism. The design of the component was such that at zero speed and zero altitude the ejection seat could fail to operate as intended.

Martin Baker Aircraft Company, of Lower Road, Higher Denham, Middlesex pleaded guilty to breaching health and safety regulations.

It was find £1,1m and ordered to pay costs of £550,000.

HSE Operations Manager Harvey Wild said: “Our investigation found that Martin Baker Aircraft Company failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect users from the risk of harm after it was told of concerns regarding the shackles which deployed the main parachute.

“The death of Sean Cunningham was therefore avoidable. Our thoughts are with his family, who are both devastated by these appalling events and proud of Sean for fulfilling his ambition of becoming a pilot with the Red Arrows.”

“We understand that a great deal of time has passed since this tragic event. However, this was an extremely complex investigation and no prosecution could be initiated until after the inquest and other inquiries had concluded.”

“We would like to publicly thank Sean’s family for their patience and support throughout.”

The Hawk aircraft is manufactured by BAE Systems in Preston.