Red Arrows death: Ejection seat firm fined £1.1m

Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham Image copyright Ministry of Defence
Image caption Flt Lt Sean Cunningham died after being ejected from his aircraft in 2011

An ejection seat manufacturer prosecuted over the death of a Red Arrows pilot thrown from his jet has been fined £1.1m.

Flt Lt Sean Cunningham, 35, was ejected while conducting pre-flight safety checks at RAF Scampton in 2011.

The parachute on the seat did not then deploy and the airman was fatally injured.

Martin-Baker Aircraft Ltd previously admitted to breaching safety laws at Lincoln Crown Court.

Sentencing the company, Mrs Justice Carr said it was "an entirely preventable tragedy".

"A significant number of pilots, and also potential passengers, were exposed to the risk of harm over a lengthy period," she added.

"Here the risk of harm was of the highest level - death."

Reading a victim impact statement on behalf of Flt Lt Cunningham's family, the judge said: "Sean's two biggest fears in life were being ejected from an aircraft and the injuries that would be sustained, and dying at a young age.

"He was to tragically experience both of these.

"He was the perfect son and brother and the pride in him from the family is justifiably immense."

Image copyright Health and Safety Executive
Image caption The ejection seat on Flt Lt Cunningham's Hawk T1 fired while he was carrying out pre-flight checks

At a previous hearing, prosecutor Rex Tedd QC said there was a risk "to many pilots over a lengthy period".

"If the pilot was ejected from the Hawk aircraft, two shackles would not release from one another and would jam together and the main parachute would not deploy," he added.

"The pilot would be several hundred feet in the air and there could only be one result of that, and that is the pilot's death."

The court previously heard an assessment by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) was that such an incident would happen only once in more than 100 years.

It was also told the firm had a "good system" in place and it "just failed in this instance".

However, the judge said the company fell short of the appropriate standard.

Image copyright Health and Safety Executive
Image caption Martin-Baker Aircraft Ltd admitted it had failed to provide a written warning to the RAF about over-tightening a bolt on the aircraft

Speaking after the sentencing, Flt Lt Sean Cunningham's father Jim Cunningham said his son's death was preventable.

He said: "Martin-Baker were aware of the defect more than 20 years ago, and it took Sean's death for the issue to come to light.

"We can only hope they have learned a lesson and that no-one else goes through this hell because of faulty equipment."

He said his son, who suffered five skull fractures and 40 body fractures, was a wonderful young man with "a heart as big as the world", whose life had been cruelly cut short.

In a statement issued by Flt Lt Cunningham's sister Nicolette Cunningham, the family added: "Sean's death was not an accident. It was a preventable death waiting to happen and we don't believe it was an isolated incident."

She said: "Lastly, I would like to address the MoD and RAF. I have one question for you. Where are you? Not one of you is here to represent my son or my family.

"Sean was so proud to be a member of the armed forces and to serve his country. He was the perfect ambassador for your organisation. He gave you his all and ultimately gave his life."

Image caption Sean's father said it took his son's death for a known issue with the ejection seat mechanism to come to light

Martin-Baker Aircraft Ltd had already agreed to pay £550,000 in prosecution costs.

In a statement, the company, which is based in Denham, Buckinghamshire, said: "Our thoughts remain foremost with the family and friends of Ft Lt Sean Cunningham, to whom the company conveys its sadness, regret and apology."

The firm admitted the health and safety breach on the basis it had failed to provide a written warning to the RAF about over-tightening a bolt on the aircraft.

It added its ejection seats were in use by 92 air forces and had saved more than 7,000 lives.

Operations manager for the Health and Safety Executive, Harvey Wild, said the death was "avoidable" and Martin-Baker "failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect users from the risk of harm".

Timeline of events:

  • 8 November 2011: Flt Lt Sean Cunningham died after being ejected from a Hawk T1 jet while on the ground at the Red Arrows base at RAF Scampton
  • 9 November 2011: The day after his death, the MOD suspended training flights of aircraft fitted with the MK10 ejection seats including Hawk T1, Tornado and Tucano
  • 22 November 2011: An inquest, which opened and adjourned in Lincoln, heard the Red Arrows pilot died from multiple injuries after being ejected from an aircraft. The coroner's court was told he fell from a height and had hit the ground, still strapped to his seat
  • December 2011: The funeral of Flt Lt Cunningham was held at Coventry Cathedral, attended by 800 mourners including RAF personnel. The halted flights were resumed
  • March 2013: The Crown Prosecution Service said it would review the pilot's death after Lincolnshire Police handed over a file of evidence
  • April 2013: Prosecutor Alison Storey said no charges would be brought over the fatality because there had been insufficient evidence on whether anyone had breached their duty of care
  • January 2014: Coroner Stuart Fisher recorded a narrative verdict after a three-week inquest into Flt Lt Cunningham's death
  • September 2016: The Health and Safety Executive said it would prosecute Martin Baker Aircraft Ltd for an alleged breach of health and safety law
  • January 2017: The ejection seat firm appeared in court charged with a breach of health and safety law
  • May 2017: Martin-Baker Aircraft Ltd pleaded not guilty at Lincoln Crown Court to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
  • January 2018: Company director John Martin pleads guilty to charges on behalf of the Buckinghamshire-based company
  • 23 February 2018: Martin-Baker Aircraft Ltd fined £1.1m.

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