The HSE investigation found that a mechanical fault led to the failure of the parachute deployment mechanism designed to bring the 35-year-old pilot to ground safely. This resulted in the main parachute failing to deploy. Flt Lt Cunningham suffered multiple serious injuries and was pronounced dead shortly after being airlifted to hospital.
A number of inquiries took place after the incident, including a police investigation, a Ministry of Defence investigation and an Inquest. HSE worked alongside Lincolnshire Police, the Coroner, and the military investigators throughout these inquiries.
HSE inspectors found that in the 1990s two aircraft manufacturers had made Martin Baker Aircraft Company Ltd aware of issues with the drogue and scissor shackles, designed to deploy the main parachute for the ejection seat mechanism. The design of the component was such that at zero speed and zero altitude the ejection seat could fail to operate as intended.
Martin Baker Aircraft Company Ltd of Lower Road, Higher Denham, Near Uxbridge, Middlesex pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act. The company was fined £1.1 million and ordered to pay costs of £550,000.
Harvey Wild, HSE Operations Manager said, “Our investigation found that Martin Baker Aircraft Company Ltd failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect users from the risk of harm after it was told of concerns regarding the shackles which deployed the main parachute. The death of Sean Cunningham was therefore avoidable. Our thoughts today are with his family, who are both devastated by these appalling events and proud of Sean for fulfilling his ambition of becoming a pilot with the Red Arrows. We understand that a great deal of time has passed since this tragic event. However, this was an extremely complex investigation and no prosecution could be initiated until after the Inquest and other inquiries had concluded. We would like to publicly thank Sean’s family for their patience and support throughout.”
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