Pilot killed in ejection plunge
An inquest into the death of a Red Arrows aerial display team pilot who died after he was ejected from his cockpit while on the ground has explored the possibility that the effects of Night Nurse might have played a part in his death.
Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, 35, was a highly-regarded and experienced pilot with the RAF's aerial display team but was fatally injured after being ejected from his Hawk T1 aircraft while on the ground at RAF Scampton, Lincolnshire, on November 8, 2011.
The parachute on the ejector seat did not deploy and the South African-born airman, who was also an Iraq war veteran, later died in hospital.
During the first day of the inquest into his death Central Lincolnshire Coroner Stuart Fisher read the findings of a post mortem exam report to the hearing.
He said tests showed Flt Lt Cunningham had used Night Nurse, which includes the ingredient promethazine, the evening before the incident and, according to the report, the medication could cause some sedation and impair performance in pilots.
"It is conceivable that side effects of this medication can include drowsiness, blurred vision, disorientation or poor concentration, and could have been responsible for a degree of cognitive impairment, but there is no way of proving this with certainty," the inquest heard.
However, in written evidence to the inquest another doctor reported it was very unlikely that any sedative effect had remained the following morning.
"It's highly unlikely that the dose of Night Nurse taken on the evening of the 7th of November had any effects on the deceased's ability to fly a plane at 11 o'clock the following morning."
Some of Flt Lt Cunningham's team-mates who were with him on the day of the incident told the inquest that he had appeared "chirpy" and "jovial" on the morning of November 8 and did not appear to be unwell or in an altered mood.
They had been preparing to fly in formation from RAF Scampton to RAF Valley in Wales when they heard a loud bang.
Flt Lt James McMillan said he was sitting in his aircraft and close to finishing his pre-flight checks, as was Flt Lt Cunningham who he could see from where he was positioned.
"I just heard what to me seemed like an enormous bang very, very close," he told the inquest.
"The first thing I thought was that there was something wrong with my aircraft because it was so close to me and I could feel it."
Flt Lt McMillan said that once he had discounted the noise had come from his own plane he looked across at Flt Lt Cunningham, thinking he had experienced an "engine surge".
"I assumed it must have been Sean and I looked across at him and that's when I realised that things were not normal."
Flt Lt McMillan said the canopy from the plane was missing and the ejector pole was sticking out, and he saw Flt Lt Cunningham was outside the aircraft, making him think he was going to see an ejection sequence in action.
"I remember thinking that something appeared wrong and I expected the sequence to be happening a lot quicker, and the main thing was that I thought I should have seen a parachute in his apex," he said.
Flt Lt Cunningham was seen "windmilling" his arms in the air before hitting the ground while still strapped to his ejector seat.
The inquest heard that he fell from around 200 to 300ft. His cause of death was found to be from multiple injuries due to a fall from height following ejection from an aircraft.