Expert Lawyers Representing Family Of Red Arrows Pilot Welcome Recommendations To Prevent Future Deaths

Three-Week Inquest Into Death Of Flt Lt Sean Cunningham Concludes


Expert lawyers representing the parents of a Red Arrows pilot, who died after his parachute failed to open when the ejector seat activated, have welcomed recommendations by the Coroner investigating his death in a bid to prevent the same safety failings being repeated.

It comes as the family’s legal team at Irwin Mitchell confirmed for the first time today that it secured the parents of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham an undisclosed settlement from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in December 2013, following a full admission of liability for the incident in July that year.

The 35-year-old died in November 2011 after being ejected from a Hawk T1 which was on the ground preparing for flight at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire.

It was revealed during a three-week inquest that seat manufacturer Martin Baker warned air forces in other countries as far back as 1990 about a potential problem, where the over tightening of a nut and bolt in the mechanism could cause the parachute to fail to deploy, but did not inform the RAF.

Flt. Lt Sean Cunningham’s parents James and Monika Cunningham and his sister Nicolette instructed serious injury experts at law firm Irwin Mitchell to investigate what caused the tragedy.

His parents paid tribute to their ‘exceptional and brave’ son following the conclusion of the inquest at the Lincoln Cathedral Centre which ended today (29 January). The Central Lincolnshire Coroner, Stuart Fisher recorded a narrative verdict criticising Martin Baker for failing to warn the MoD about the fault.

Irwin Mitchell submitted 10 recommendations on behalf of the family during the inquest. Mr Fisher made two recommendations he felt were necessary having heard evidence during the inquest as to the safety improvements that have been made since Sean’s death to try and prevent the same tragedy being repeated.

These were that Martin Baker and the MoD reach a design solution in aircraft ejection seats to prevent the 'strapping in' process impacting on the safety of the seat and that Martin Baker introduce a new process for the urgent distribution of safety information.

Keith Barrett, is a Partner and serious injury expert at Irwin Mitchell. 

Expert Opinion
Sean’s family have shown tremendous dignity and composure throughout the Inquest despite having to listen to difficult details about the circumstances that led to Sean’s death.

“Sean’s family have been understandably desperate to get information about why Sean was ejected from the plane, why the parachute did not deploy and what steps have been taken to ensure the same tragedy cannot happen again. Working in the armed forces will of course always have risks, but defective or poorly maintained equipment is simply unacceptable and not something pilots should have to consider in their day-to-day work.

“We invited the Coroner to make a number of recommendations designed to prevent future similar deaths. It is hugely important that lessons are learnt from the tragedy and improvements are made to prevent similar failures.

“Prior to the Inquest the MoD admitted liability for Sean’s death and agreed to pay the family damages.”
Keith Barrett, Partner

Speaking after the verdict, Sean’s father Jim Cunningham, said: "Our son Sean died aged 35 doing what he loved which was flying with the Red Arrows. From the age of 17, he had wanted nothing more than to join the Royal Air Force and serve his country, which he did with utmost pride and sense of duty.

"He served a number of tours in Iraq, flying Tornados in close air support of coalition forces. Sean’s death was a tragedy which we hope the evidence revealed in this Inquest, will help to avoid in the future.
"We are very grateful to the Coroner, Mr Fisher, for allowing a full exploration of how this tragic death occurred.
"We would also like to thank our wonderful and dedicated legal team, Tom Kark QC & Polly Dyer from QEB Hollis Whiteman and Keith Barrett from Irwin Mitchell, for helping us in testing the evidence presented to the Coroner of this Inquest, so as to reveal the full details and background leading up to Sean’s death on 8 November 2011.

"We still find it difficult to accept that so many people could have missed, between Sean’s last sortie on Friday and the following Tuesday, what should have been obvious to those having a duty to ensure the safety of the seat, and we remain unconvinced as to that aspect of the Coroner’s finding.
"Nevertheless, we accept that how the seat firing handle came to be in a position where it could be inadvertently activated may never be fully understood.

"We welcome the conclusions of the Coroner which confirm what we knew all along, which is that Sean was blameless and his tragic death was preventable. We therefore welcome the Coroner’s recommendations, which we hope and pray will ensure that no family such as ours, has to endure such a pointless and avoidable death."