Ejector seat maker fined £1.1m for Red Arrows pilot death

23 February 2018, 13:30

An ejector seat maker has been fined £1.1m for a health and safety breach which resulted in the death of a Red Arrows pilot.

Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, an experienced flyer, was ejected from his Hawk T1 aircraft while conducting pre-flight checks on the ground at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire, on 8 November 2011.

The parachute on the ejector seat did not deploy and the South African-born airman died in hospital.

Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Ltd admitted failing to ensure the safety of non-employees in connection with the 35-year-old's death at a hearing on 22 January.

At Lincoln Crown Court on Friday, the firm was handed a £1.1m fine and had already agreed to pay £550,000 in prosecution costs.

Handing the company the fine, Mrs Justice Carr said: "Flight Lieutenant Cunningham was a fit and professional trained pilot with a promising future ahead of him.

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

"Here the risk of harm was of the highest level - death. Martin-Baker Aircraft Company fell short of the appropriate standard."

She added: "This was, in the words of his father, an entirely preventable tragedy."

On the first day of the two-day sentencing hearing at the beginning of February, prosecutor Rex Tedd said the company had a duty to "ensure none of the pilots" were exposed to a health and safety risk.

He said: "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.

"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 firm describes itself on its website as the "world's leading manufacturer of ejection and crashworthy seats".

In the submissions made by the defence, the judge was told the company's sadness and regret was enormous.

Richard Matthews, defending, said: "The company accepts its responsibility for the significant contribution it has made in the death of Lieutenant Cunningham.

"Nobody can convey the sadness and regret on behalf of the company and all those who stand behind it. I know you will accept that it is enormous."

Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Ltd has said in a statement: "Our thoughts remain foremost with the family and friends of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, to whom the Company conveys its sadness, regret and apology.

"This tragic accident was the result of an inadvertent ejection and main parachute deployment failure due to the over-tightening of the drogue shackle bolt."

It says the company accepted a breach of the Health & Safety At Work Act 1974 "on the basis that it failed to provide a written warning to the RAF not to over-tighten the drogue shackle bolt".

"Martin-Baker has designed and manufactured ejection seats for 73 years and in that time they have been flown by 92 air forces. Our seats have saved the lives of 1,050 RAF and Royal Navy aircrew with a further 6,510 aircrew lives saved around the world.

"We appreciate that both the Judge and the Health & Safety Executive, during this process, has acknowledged our dedication and track record in saving lives."