Inquest into Red Arrows pilot death told 'resources were a big issue'

The inquest into the death of the 35-year-old South African continued in Lincoln

The squadron leader of the Red Arrows was shocked by the lack of resources in the team when he returned after time away, an inquest into a pilot’s death was told.

Lincoln Coroner's Court heard that Sqn Ldr Martin Higgins said in a statement taken previously: “The big change I have seen, having left the team for four years, is that resources is now a big issue, and the ability to do the task. It's a big ask on the boys downstairs.”

Giving evidence to the inquest into the death of pilot Sean Cunningham, Sqn Ldr Higgins said he was talking about the engineers, who understood and wanted to do their job but needed some extra help to do so.

“They need some reassurance that help is on the way.”

He went on: “Four years had passed since I left the team and the aeroplanes were not getting any younger.

”I had assumed that the tempo would naturally decrease because less resources were at hand and it surprised me that the board had looked as it did as I left.“

Sgn Ldr Higgins said that there was little opportunity for the engineers to get their hands on the planes, and in 2007 there were more experienced staff at corporate level.

”It seemed that a lot of dilution had occurred,“ he said.

He was not due to fly on the day of Flt Lt Cunningham's death, on November 8 2011, but had been at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire when the incident took place.

Flt Lt Cunningham was killed after he was propelled 200 to 300ft in the air from his Hawk T1 aircraft while on the ground at the air base.

Read more: Inquest in to the death of Red Arrows pilot finds he had problem with ejector seat handle

He was a highly-regarded and experienced pilot with the RAF's aerial display team as well as an Iraq war veteran.

The parachute on the ejector seat did not deploy and the 35-year-old South African-born airman later died in hospital as a result of multiple injuries.

Sqn Ldr Higgins said he said he had seen Flt Lt Cunningham over coffee that morning and he was his usual self - a ”charming individual and always upbeat“.

The inquest heard from Corporal David Morris, a friend and colleague of Flt Lt Cunningham, a survival equipment fitter - or ”squipper“ - with the RAF.

He described how he watched in horror as the pilot was ejected from the plane and hit the ground.

”The canopy filled with smoke and Flight Lieutenant Cunningham went from his seat through the canopy,“ he said.

Cpl Morris was forced to pause to compose himself before he continued talking as he recalled the events of the day.

He said he was standing with a colleague when the canopy blew, scattering pieces of perspex which they had to duck to avoid, and it took a few seconds to realise what had happened.

He said he watched the trajectory of the ejection seat through the air because he was aware it should separate from the pilot and it was unclear where they would land.

However, the inquest heard that the seat did not come away from Flt Lt Cunningham, who remained attached to the seat until he hit the ground.

Cpl Morris said: ”I watched it from start to finish and when I saw the drogue deploy, the seat stabilised but from where I was standing it looked like Flight Lieutenant Cunningham was trying to stabilise himself.

“I could see his limbs moving and then the seat seemed to come to some sort of position where it was falling properly and that's when I thought it would separate from Flight Lieutenant Cunningham.

”He came down almost in slow motion, but obviously fairly quickly, and hit the floor. I could hear and feel the thud beneath our feet.“

Colleagues rushed to Flt Lt Cunningham's side but Cpl Morris said it was obvious he was terribly injured.

”I knew it was bad,“ he told the inquest.

Asked by Richard Seabrook, counsel to the inquest, if he saw any signs of life, Cpl Morris paused to take a deep breath before answering: ”No.“

Senior Aircraftman Joseph Tiley, an aircraft maintenance mechanic for Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), told the inquest that on the morning of November 8 he carried out checks on Flt Lt Cunningham's aircraft before signing it over to the pilot for flight.

He said part of his inspection was to examine the cockpit to make sure there were no problems.

This included a visual check for safety pins in the seat, which pilots must pull out as they prepare for take-off to allow a seat firing handle to activate in case of emergency.

Yesterday the inquest heard that, to trigger the seat, pilots must then pull the handle, which is located on the seat between their legs, upwards.

Evidence given to the hearing stated there had been occasions when air crew were unaware that the safety pin had been mistakenly inserted incorrectly and the firing mechanism became live.

The inquest also heard that the safety handle could be locked in a certain position where a downward pressure would cause the ejection seat to launch.

SAC Tiley said he would always check safety pins in the seat and he carried out these checks as usual on the morning of the day of Flt Lt Cunningham's death.

He did not see the ejection.

”I was about to take a step back to do the air brake when I saw a flash of black smoke and at that point I tucked myself into a ball, put my hands over my head, and closed my eyes,“ he said.

SAC Tiley told the inquest he had not been aware that if a safety pin was in the seat it could be unsafe.

He said: ”At the time, if the pin was in, in my opinion, that should have meant it was through the housing and it should not have been possible for the other positions.

“To me, an ejector seat should have two settings - safe or in use. It should not have these dead spots.”

The inquest, which is expected to last up to three weeks and is being attended by members of Flt Lt Cunningham's family, continues.


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