Pilot horror inquest told of lack of resources

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The squadron leader of the Red Arrows was left shocked at the lack of resources in the team when he returned after time away, the inquest into pilot Sean Cunningham’s death has heard.

The hearing in Lincoln was told that Sqn Ldr Martin Higgins said in a statement taken previously: “The big change I have seen, having left the team for four years, is that resources is now a big issue, and the ability to do the task. It’s a big ask on the boys downstairs.”

Giving evidence to the inquest, Sqn Ldr Higgins said he was talking about the engineers, who understood and wanted to do their job but needed some extra help to do so. “They need some reassurance that help is on the way.”

He went on: “Four years had passed since I left the team and the aeroplanes were not getting any younger.

“I had assumed that the tempo would naturally decrease because less resources were at hand and it surprised me that the board had looked as it did as I left.”

He was not due to fly on the day of Flt Lt Cunningham’s death, on November 8, 2011, but had been at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire when the incident took place.

Flt Lt Cunningham was killed after he was propelled 200 to 300ft in the air from his Hawk T1 aircraft while on the ground.

He was a highly-regarded and experienced pilot with the RAF’s aerial display team as well as an Iraq war veteran.

The parachute on the ejector seat did not deploy and the 35-year-old South African-born airman later died in hospital as a result of multiple injuries.

Sqn Ldr Higgins said he said he had seen Flt Lt Cunningham over coffee that morning and he was his usual self – a “charming individual and always upbeat”.

The inquest heard from Corporal David Morris, a friend and colleague of Flt Lt Cunningham, a survival equipment fitter – or “squipper” – with the RAF.

He described how he watched in horror as the pilot was ejected from the plane and hit the ground.

“He came down almost in slow motion, but obviously fairly quickly, and hit the floor. I could hear and feel the thud beneath our feet,” he said.

The inquest, which is expected to last three weeks, continues.