'RAF dream' of Red Arrows pilot

 

A Red Arrows pilot killed after being ejected from his aircraft had dreamed of flying RAF fast jets since childhood, his family said today.

Iraq War veteran Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, 34, died in the incident on the runway at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire yesterday morning.

The RAF has suspended all non-essential flying on all aircraft with ejector seats of the type linked to the tragedy.

Flt Lt Cunningham, from Coventry, was the second Red Arrows pilot to be killed in less than three months after Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging, 33, died in an air show crash in Dorset in August.

He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and moved to the UK in 1986 at the age of nine, attending Ernesford Grange School in Coventry and studying electrical and electronic engineering at Nottingham Trent University.

Although he had the potential to become a professional footballer, he decided to follow his dream of training as an RAF pilot.

Having joined the RAF in 2000, he flew Tornado GR4s during the Iraq War as part of 617 "The Dambusters" Squadron based at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.

Flt Lt Cunningham joined the Red Arrows in 2010 and was this year promoted to the important "Red 5" position in the world-famous aerobatics team.

His father Jim, mother Monika and sister Nicolette said in a statement: "Sean was first and foremost a much-loved son and brother who will be dearly missed by all of his family, and his many good friends.

"Since his childhood Sean had dreamed of flying fast jets in the Royal Air Force. Through his hard work and dedication he achieved that dream, and the pinnacle of his career was to fly in the Red Arrows.

"Sean loved his flying and we hope that his life will be an inspiration to all those who share his dreams. His fun-loving nature has never failed to put a smile on the faces of those who knew and loved him. This is how he will be remembered."

Air Vice-Marshal Mike Lloyd, air officer commanding Number 22 (Training) Group, said Flt Lt Cunningham made an "outstanding" contribution to the RAF.

Group Captain Simon Blake, the commandant of the RAF's central flying school, said: "His constant smile, energy, and joie de vivre was infectious and he will be sorely missed by his fellow pilots, the entire Red Arrows team and his many colleagues and friends in the wider Royal Air Force.

"Our heartfelt sorrow and sympathy go out to his family and all those whose lives he touched."

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond added: "It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham.

"He was clearly a gifted pilot who served his country with honour and distinction throughout his career in the Royal Air Force.

"As a Red Arrow, Flt Lt Cunningham was regarded as among the most talented aviators in the world. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this terrible time."

The flight suspension announced today affects RAF aircraft fitted with Martin Baker Mk 10 ejection seats, which are the Tornado GR4, the Tucano and the Hawk.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "Pending further investigation and purely as a precautionary measure, all non-essential Royal Air Force flying on aircraft fitted with a similar ejector seat to the Hawk T1 has been temporarily suspended.

"The safety of our crews remains our paramount concern."

The suspension is expected to last for days rather than weeks and operational flying will not be affected, although some training flights will be cancelled.

This is not the first death linked to an ejector seat failure in an RAF aircraft.

Civilian navigator Mike Harland, 44, of Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, died after his seat slipped from an RAF Tornado GR4 while upside down during a test flight above Norfolk in November 2007.

Accident investigators concluded that a locking device which prevented the ejector seat from slipping when the jet was flying upside down had not been properly fitted but RAF technicians insisted it was correctly installed, his inquest in Norwich heard last year.

The Military Aviation Authority is carrying out an investigation into the latest tragedy.

Defence sources said Flt Lt Cunningham's death was not thought to be linked to the accidents which killed Flt Lt Egging or Mr Harland.

The Red Arrows completed their final display of the season in September and have been carrying out their winter training at their base at RAF Scampton.

PA

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