Operations in United Kingdom

MOD confirms the death of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham

It is with sadness that the MOD must confirm that Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, of the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, was killed when he was ejected from his Hawk T1 aircraft on the morning of Tuesday 8 November 2011.

A full Service Inquiry will investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham

Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham
Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham [Picture: via MOD]

Red 5 - Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham, aged 35, was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and moved to the UK in 1986 at the age of nine. Although a profession in football was a possibility, he followed his dream to become a fast jet pilot in the Royal Air Force. Flt Lt Cunningham attended Ernesford Grange School in Coventry, during which time he qualified for his Private Pilot Licence at the age of 17. He went on to read Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Nottingham Trent University, and completed his Elementary Flying Training as a member of East Midlands Universities Air Squadron.

Joining the Royal Air Force in 2000, Flt Lt Cunningham was selected for Fast Jet Training. On completion of his flying training, he was posted to the Tornado GR4 aircraft of 617 ‘The Dambusters’ Squadron at Royal Air Force Lossiemouth. During his three years on the Squadron, Flt Lt Cunningham completed several operational tours of Iraq as part of Operation TELIC, flying close air support missions for coalition ground forces.

After completing exercises in America, Canada, Romania and France, Flt Lt Cunningham joined XV (R) Squadron as a Qualified Pilot and Tactics Instructor. He continued his instructional role when posted to the Weapon Systems Officer Training Unit at 100 Squadron, RAF Leeming, before being selected to fly for the RAF Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, in 2010.

Flt Lt Cunningham’s family - father Jim, mother Monika and sister Nicolette - said:

Sean was first and foremost a much-loved son and brother who will be dearly missed by all of his family, and his many good friends.

Since his childhood Sean had dreamed of flying fast jets in the Royal Air Force; through his hard work and dedication he achieved that dream, and the pinnacle of his career was to fly in the Red Arrows. Sean loved his flying and we hope that his life will be an inspiration to all those who share his dreams.

His fun-loving nature has never failed to put a smile on the faces of those who knew and loved him; this is how he will be remembered.

We ask that the media please allow us the time and space required to come to terms with what has happened.

Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond said:

It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham. He was clearly a gifted pilot who served his country with honour and distinction throughout his career in the Royal Air Force.

As a Red Arrow, Flight Lieutenant Cunningham was regarded as among the most talented aviators in the world. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this terrible time.

Air Officer Commanding Number 22 (Training) Group, Air Vice-Marshal Mike Lloyd, said:

The Red Arrows personify the teamwork, professionalism and excellence that is commonplace throughout the Royal Air Force and Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham demonstrated each of these values on a daily basis. His contribution to the Service as an aviator in the Tornado GR4 Force, as a Red Arrows pilot and as an officer has been outstanding. Sean will be missed by all and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.

Group Captain Simon Blake, the Commandant of the RAF’s Central Flying School, said:

Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham joined the team in October 2010 and flew for his first year as Red 3. This year, Sean had commenced training as Red 5 and was the senior member of the ‘front 5’, affectionately known as ‘Enid’, and thus had the unofficial mantle of ‘Uncle Enid’ - a key position in mentoring and helping to train the new pilots to the team.

His constant smile, energy and joie de vivre were infectious, and he will be sorely missed by his fellow pilots, the entire Red Arrows team, and his many colleagues and friends in the wider Royal Air Force. Our heartfelt sorrow and sympathy go out to his family and all those whose lives he touched.