Ejection Seat Manufacturer Fined $1.4 Million in Red Arrows Pilot's Death

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive concluded a mechanical fault led to the failure of the parachute deployment mechanism designed to bring the 35-year-old pilot to ground safely, and this resulted in the main parachute failing to deploy.

Ejection seat manufacturer Martin Baker Aircraft Company Ltd has been fined £1.1 million, equivalent to about $1.4 million in U.S. dollars, and ordered to pay costs of £550,000 after pleading guilty in connection with the 2011 death of a pilot for the British aerobatics team the Red Arrows. The company made and supplied the ejection seat that failed on Nov. 8, 2011, while on the ground, ejecting pilot Sean Cunningham as the Red Arrows were preparing to take off from an airfield in Lincolnshire.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive concluded a mechanical fault led to the failure of the parachute deployment mechanism designed to bring the 35-year-old pilot to ground safely, and this resulted in the main parachute failing to deploy.

HSE inspectors also found that in the 1990s, two aircraft manufacturers had made Martin Baker Aircraft Company Ltd aware of issues with the drogue and scissor shackles that were 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.

The company pleaded guilty to a charge under Section 3 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work Etc Act 1974, the Health and Safety Executive announced Jan. 22.

The company posted a statement after the sentencing: "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.

"Martin-Baker's ethos has always been to design and manufacture the highest quality ejection seats and that the maintenance should be carried out to the highest possible standards, under effective supervision and by regularly trained and qualified personnel. Martin-Baker has 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 & Safety Executive, during this process, has acknowledged our dedication and track record in saving lives."

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