Hundreds mourn Red Arrows pilot

 

Hundreds of mourners today paid their respects to an "enormously popular" Red Arrows pilot who died after being ejected from his jet at the team's base.

The family of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, the second Red Arrows pilot killed in less than three months, were joined by comrades and friends of the 35-year-old for his funeral at Coventry Cathedral.

During the hour-long service, Flt Lt Cunningham was described by the Red Arrows' commanding officer as a "charming, professional and dedicated" pilot who had touched the lives of many people.

Flt Lt Cunningham died in hospital after an incident in which he was ejected from his Hawk T1 aircraft on the ground at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire on November 8.

Tributes to the South African-born serviceman, who attended Coventry's Ernesford Grange School, were led by Squadron Leader Jim Turner, the officer commanding the RAF's aerobatic team.

Sqn Ldr Turner told mourners that Flt Lt Cunningham had fulfilled his dream of being selected to fly with the Red Arrows in 2010 after flying operational sorties in Iraq.

Describing his colleague as fun-loving and laid-back, Sqn Ldr Turner told the service: "Sean was a man who accomplished great things in his 35 years.

"Flying with the Red Arrows represented for Sean, as it does for all of us lucky enough to tread this hallowed path, the pinnacle of his flying career.

"His love of the job was obvious to see - his sense of excitement would grow as the time approached to go flying."

Sqn Ldr Turner said: "On that fateful day at RAF Scampton on the 8th of November, Sean was quite literally buzzing with excitement at the prospect of flying to RAF Valley for an overnight stay with the rest of his formation of five aircraft ... to do some great flying and catch up with old friends.

"I only knew Sean for a short time and was his squadron commander for just four weeks.

"He had returned to the team from a period of leave and had taken up his position as Red Five, responsible for training new team members.

"I took an instant liking to Sean and although I didn't know him well it was clear to me what kind of man he was - charming, professional and dedicated to the team he loved so much."

Addressing several hundred mourners, Sqn Ldr Turner concluded his tribute to Flt Lt Cunningham by saying: "I will miss his quietly self-assured, laid-back approach to life and his calm manner.

"Sean touched the lives of so many people and made an indelible impression on the team and myself, and we will carry his spirit and memory with us next season and beyond.

"Life can be so cruel and I have spent a lot of time searching deep within me for answers as to why Sean was taken from us on that foggy morning.

"Sean would not want us dwelling on such things - he would want us to carry on, to get back in the air and to reclaim our place in the hearts of the population of this great nation.

"Sean lived his life to the full and accomplished so much - he was enormously popular and loved by many, but none more so than by his parents and sister.

"Above all, he was a credit to the Royal Air Force, to the Red Arrows, but most significantly to his dad Jim, mum Monika and sister Nicolette."

Members of the Red Arrows carried Flt Lt Cunningham's coffin into the cathedral for the service, which ended with the singing of the National Anthem.

The congregation included the widow of Flt Lt Jon Egging, who died when his Red Arrows jet crashed near Bournemouth in August, and television presenter Carol Vorderman, who was a friend of Flt Lt Cunningham.

Following the service, a fly-past was conducted by two RAF Tornado GR4 jets based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.

The aircraft, flying at 1,000ft, were crewed by members of Flt Lt Cunningham's past squadrons - 617 "The Dambusters" Squadron and XV(R) Squadron.

A full service inquiry has been launched into the circumstances surrounding the incident at RAF Scampton and an inquest was opened and adjourned earlier this month.

PA

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