Red Arrows ejection seat firm guilty over RAF Scampton death

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 firm has admitted breaching health and safety laws over the death of a Red Arrows pilot.

Flt Lt Sean Cunningham, 35, was ejected unexpectedly from his jet while it was on the ground at RAF Scampton in 2011.

But the parachute on the seat did not then deploy and the South African-born airman was fatally injured.

Martin-Baker Aircraft Ltd pleaded guilty at Lincoln Crown Court to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Company director John Martin entered the plea on behalf of the company, based near Uxbridge.

The firm is due to be sentenced on 12 February.

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

An inquest into Flt Lt Cunningham's death heard he was fired 300ft up into the air on 8 November before he hit the ground with "tremendous" force.

The Iraq war veteran, who grew up in Coventry, had been carrying out pre-flight safety checks in his Hawk T1 jet when the seat fired.

It emerged during the hearing in 2014 that the ejection seat firing handle had been left in an unsafe position meaning it could accidentally activate the seat.

It is thought one of Flt Lt Cunningham's seat straps had pulled it into this unsafe position on a sortie four days earlier.

'Entirely useless'

Flt Lt Cunningham's parachute failed to deploy because a nut and bolt had been fastened too tightly.

Martin-Baker had been aware of the possibility of the parachute mechanism jamming as early as 1990, the inquest was told.

Coroner Stuart Fisher described the seats' safety mechanism as "entirely useless" and criticised the company for failing to warn the RAF about safety issues.

The Crown Prosecution Service considered possible manslaughter charges but said there was insufficient evidence.

However, the Health and Safety Executive announced in September 2016 it intended to prosecute Martin-Baker Aircraft.

In a statement issued by the firm after entering the guilty plea, it said: "It should be noted that this was an isolated failure relating to the tightening of a nut during maintenance procedures conducted by RAF Aerobatic Team mechanics."

It added its ejection seats were in use by 92 air forces and had saved 7,059 lives over the past 73 years.


  • 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: 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 Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
  • Jan 2018: Company director John Martin pleads guilty to charges on behalf of the Uxbridge-based company

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