- Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham was thrown 200 feet into the air while plane was on runway before falling to ground
- Group Captain Simon Blake: 'Our thoughts and prayers are with the pilot's family and friends at this difficult time'
- Accident comes less than three months after death of another pilot on the team, Flt Lt Jon Egging, 33
Last updated at 9:23 AM on 9th November 2011
Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham’s plane was still on the runway when he was ejected up to 200 feet into the air before plunging to the ground.
Paramedics treated the 35-year-old before he was airlifted to hospital where he died shortly afterwards.
Flt Lt Cunningham flew in the Iraq war on close air support missions for British and U.S. ground troops.
The horrific incident happened less than three months after another Red Arrows pilot, Flt Lt Jon Egging, 33, was killed when his jet crashed at an air show in Dorset.
Before Flt Lt Egging’s death in August, there had been no Red Arrows fatalities since 1988.
Royal Air Force personnel said yesterday was a ‘black day’ for the world-famous aerobatics display team.
Only last week Red Arrows crews joined Flt Lt Egging’s family and friends at a packed memorial service for the pilot.
Elaine Findlay, of the Bournemouth Red Arrows Association, said: ‘We haven’t got over losing Jon Egging and now we have this dreadful news. They are such brilliant aviators, and so loved and admired by the public.’
Military chiefs said an independent inquiry would be launched into the tragedy which happened at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. Crucial to the investigation will be whether there were any problems with the ejection seat or if its parachute failed to open.
Last year the RAF grounded its fleet of 126 Hawk T1 jets – used by the Red Arrows for their high-speed formations – after faults with the seats were discovered.
Speaking to his local paper in May, he said: ‘Being on the Red Arrows team has been my dream job and something I have wanted to do since I can remember. I remember seeing them on the telly and thinking I want to be able to do that.’
Flt Lt Cunningham qualified for his private pilot’s licence when he was 17. He joined the RAF in 2000 after studying electrical and electronic engineering at the University of Nottingham.
Concerns about the ejection seats recurred when Flt Lt Egging was killed after the Bournemouth Air Show in August.
Minutes earlier his wife Dr Emma Egging had watched the breathtaking performance. Witnesses who rushed to the crash site in a field near the village of Throop found his body floating in the River Stour with the ejection seat a short distance away.
Flt Lt Cunningham joined the Red Arrows last year at the same time as Flt Lt Egging.
He grew up in Binley, near Coventry – 15 miles from the Warwickshire village of Ufton where Flt Lt Egging was raised.
Medical teams rushed to RAF Scampton after the accident at about 11am yesterday.
The Red Arrows jets could be seen lined up on the tarmac at the team’s base last night. One aircraft had the front part of its cockpit canopy missing.
Betty Dickson, 86, said: ‘Sean’s father came around to tell me what had happened earlier. The family are friends of mine and they are obviously distraught.
‘Sean was happy-go-lucky – he was always interested in aircraft.’
Group Captain Simon Blake, commandant of the RAF’s Central Flying School, said last night: ‘The pilot was ejected from the aircraft whilst the aircraft was on the ground.
‘The director-general of the Military Aviation Authority is in the process of initiating a full and independent service inquiry to determine the cause of this tragic incident.’
Aviation expert Jim Ferguson said: ‘Ejector seats are made like a Swiss watch, and many British pilots owe their lives to them. Incidents like these are extremely rare. During my 40 years in the aviation industry I can only remember four or five similar incidents in Britain.’
The Red Arrows completed their final display of the season in September and are currently carrying out winter training.
The display team has five new pilots who are familiarising themselves with the Hawk T1s which specialise in low-level flying.
The team, formed in 1965, aim to fly their first formation involving all nine aircraft in the team in March. Since the crash in August, the Red Arrows have been flying eight-man formations instead of the usual nine.
Each year the Red Arrows’ line-up changes, with pilots normally flying with the team for three years, before returning to operational duties.