Air crash investigators release initial report into Shoreham air disaster

The Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) has released its initial report into the tragic Shoreham air crash.

A display at Shoreham Airshow shortly before the tragic crash     Picture by Eddie Mitchell
A display at Shoreham Airshow shortly before the tragic crash Picture by Eddie Mitchell

The report confirms that an inspection of the ill-fated aircraft carried out the afternoon prior to the airshow found no fault with the aircraft. On the day of the flight, pilot Andy Hill carried out a pre-flight inspection and signed the aircraft’s technical Log, reporting no defects.

Mr Hill was described as being in good spirits and looking forward to the flight.

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Trained by the Royal Air Force, Mr Hill was a fast jet pilot and instructor, before becoming a commercial pilot.

An Aircraft Type Rating Exemption (Full) issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) enabling him to fly the Hawker Hunter was due to expire just five days after the incident.

The pilot’s electronic logbook showed Mr Hill had flown 40.25 hours in the Hawker Hunter since May, 26, 2011 – 9.7 hours of which had been in the last 90 days and 2.1 hours in the last 28 days.

Footage recorded by two cameras in the plane’s cockpit suggest the aircraft appeared to be responding to Mr Hill’s control inputs. The aircraft was not fitted with a flight recorder and no flight path information was recovered from the aircraft GPS.

First contact with the ground happened approximately 50m east of the A27 junction with Coombes Road in the Westbound carriageway. The pilot had attempted an unsuccessful loop-the-loop manoeuvre immediately before the crash.

The maximum height recorded from the plane’s final manoeuvre was 2,600ft at the apex of the loop Mr Hill was attempting. Initial analysis shows that the minimum speed of the plane at this point was 100.

During the descent the aircraft accelerated and the nose was raised but the aircraft did not achieve level flight.

The report describes how fuel and fuel vapour from the plane’s fuel tanks were released and then ignited. The aircraft broke into four main pieces which came to rest close together approximately 243m from the initial ground contact, in a shallow overgrown depression to the south of the A27.

The report goes on to say that investigators are not sure whether Mr Hill attempted to eject from the craft or was forcibly removed due to the significant impact.

It reads: “During the initial part of the impact sequence the jettisonable aircraft canopy was released, landing in a tree close to the main aircraft wreckage. During the latter part of the impact sequence, both the pilot and his seat were thrown clear from the cockpit.

“The pilot sustained serious injuries. The investigation continues to determine if the pilot attempted to initiate ejection or if the canopy and pilot’s seat were liberated as a result of impact damage to the cockpit.”

Further investigation of the aircraft and its maintenance records will be carried out by the AAIB. It will also explore the operation of the aircraft, the organisation of the event with regard to public safety, and associated regulatory issues.

Jim Morris, a former RAF pilot and specialist aviation lawyer, has analysed the AAIB’s bulletin.

He said: “Ultimately for any aircraft performing aerobatic manoeuvres at low level the risks are high and there is little room for error – hence the need for stringent rules on flight paths, display lines, minimum heights and qualification and experience of the pilots, serviceability of aircraft, and approvals of each aerobatic routine including the correct speeds and manoeuvre heights.

“I know first-hand how meticulous the organizers and crews have to be to comply with the rules and regulations to ensure the displays are as safe as possible. But the fact is that if something goes wrong while an aircraft is performing high energy manoeuvres at low height the effects over a wide area can be catastrophic.

“The prompt release of this special bulletin is welcomed, however the AAIB needs to quickly determine the full chain of events so that the causes of the crash are understood and appropriate measures to improve flight safety in air displays can be implemented.”

The Hawker Hunter is a single-engine advanced military jet trainer capable of speeds close to the speed of sound.

G-BXFI was built in 1955 as a single-seat aircraft, but subsequently it was modified to a two-seat trainer in 1959.

Both pilot positions were fitted with ejection seats. It remained in military service until 1997, when it was transferred to the civilian register.

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