Martin-Baker Aircraft Limited was prosecuted after Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham's parachute failed to deploy due to a mechanical fault with his plane's ejector seat.
Lincoln Crown Court heard 35-year-old Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham was carrying out pre-flight checks on his Hawk T Mk 1 XX177 aircraft while stationary on the ground at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire when the ejector seat suddenly engaged. The Iraq War veteran was ejected into the air but the main parachute on the seat failed to deploy, sending him plunging back to the ground while still in his seat. He suffered multiple serious injuries and was pronounced dead shortly after being airlifted to hospital following the incident in November 2011.
The court heard the ejector seat was manufactured and supplied by Middlesex-based Martin-Baker Aircraft Company, which describes itself as “the world’s leading manufacturer of ejection seats and related equipment”.
The ejector seat accidentally activated while the pilot prepared for take-off.
HSE prosecuted the company following the conclusion of investigations by the civilian and military police, a Service Inquiry by the Ministry of Defence and an inquest into the circumstances surrounding the pilot’s death.
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, which are designed to deploy the main parachute for the ejection seat mechanism. The design of the component meant that at ‘zero speed and zero altitude’ – an ejection while stationary on the ground – the ejection seat could fail to operate as intended, the court heard.
Speaking after the case, HSE operations manager Harvey Wild 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.”
Martin-Baker Aircraft Company pleaded guilty to breaching section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 at an earlier court hearing in January this year. At the sentencing hearing on 23 February 2018, it was ordered to pay prosecution costs of £550,000, in addition to the fine.
In a statement issued after the case, Martin-Baker Aircraft Company Limited said: “Our thoughts remain foremost with the family and friends of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, to whom the Company conveys its sadness, regret and apology.
“This tragic accident was the result of an inadvertent ejection and main parachute deployment failure due to the over-tightening of the drogue shackle bolt.
“In November 2017, the HSE confirmed that the inadvertent ejection was not caused by any fault attributable to the company.
“Upon receiving clarification of the HSE’s case, the company accepted a breach of s.3(1) of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, on the basis that it failed to provide a written warning to the RAF not to over-tighten the drogue shackle bolt.”
The company added it had “designed and manufactured ejection seats for 73 years and in that time they have been flown by 92 air forces.
“Our seats have saved the lives of 1,050 RAF and Royal Navy aircrew with a further 6,510 aircrew lives saved around the world.
“We appreciate that both the judge and the Health and Safety Executive, during this process, has acknowledged our dedication and track record in saving lives.”
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