The pilot of a plane which crashed during the Shoreham Airshow, killing 11 people, has been cleared of manslaughter.
Andy Hill was acquitted following an Old Bailey trial which lasted seven weeks.
Mr Hill says he has no memory of what happened on 22 August, 2015, but believes he must have been cognitively impaired or disorientated to have made such a catastrophic mistake to crash his 1950s Hawker Hunter jet onto a busy dual carriageway.
Mr Hill’s flying career began with the Royal Air Force. He was regarded as one of their best pilots, becoming an instructor, as well as taking part in enforcing the no-fly zone over northern Iraq before the overthrown of Saddam Hussein.
After leaving the RAF he became a commercial pilot with Virgin Atlantic and then British Airways. He and his wife Ellen, also a pilot, built their own plane from a kit, and flew it in air shows. It led to further invitations to fly fast jets in displays.
In 2014, he was at the controls of a vintage Jet Provost at an air show at Southport. But the organiser was forced to issue a rare ‘Stop Stop Stop’ radio call because he felt Mr Hill had flown too close to spectators. The prosecution argued he was cavalier and a risk taker.
But some of his fellow pilots defended his record.
George Bacon from the British Air Display Association said: Andy has the most extraordinary record. He really is a very talented, hugely intelligent and bright guy.
As a pilot he’s probably up at least in the top 10% of aviators through his generation of training in the Royal Air Force. I’ve never known him take any risks.
He, amongst many others including myself, will have made small errors during the course of our flying careers, but he was a very disciplined, a very focused individual, took a great deal of interest in the detail of every sortie.
At the display in Shoreham, Mr Hill was flying a vintage Hawker Hunter jet that once belonged to the RAF. He was attempting what he called a ‘bent loop’ but the jet wasn’t going fast enough, or high enough to complete the inverted circle.
The jet was travelling at 310 knots, without full power. It should have reached between 330 and 350 knots. Instead of reaching 4200 feet above the ground, the apex of the loop was at 2800 feet.
The plane continued its descent and despite a brief attempt to pull up just before it hit the ground, it crashed onto the bust A27. The fireball engulfed cars and people who’d gathered there to watch the display.
Eleven people were killed and a further 16 people were injured.
The crash partially triggered the ejector mechanism in the cockpit and Hill was thrown clear of the wreckage. He suffered extensive injuries including a collapsed lung, and fractured ribs and shoulder. He was in a coma for a week, but was well enough to be discharged from hospital three weeks later.
The Air Accident Investigation Board concluded that there was no mechanical problem with the jet, and after one of the biggest investigations in the history of Sussex Police, Hill was charged with manslaughter by gross negligence.
For experienced pilots, a loop is relatively straightforward and they should know what to do if they realise they are too low or too slow to complete it.
Mark Petrie, who flies a Jet Provost at air shows, demonstrated the escape manoeuvre to Sky News. At the top of the loop, the inverted plane simply ‘unloads’ and rolls out in the opposite direction. A pilot should have three or four seconds to decide what to do.
Mr Petrie said: Had Andy been fully conscious and aware I would have expected he would spotted that the height at the top of manoeuvre was incorrect and he should then have easily been able to fly an escape manoeuvre and then carry on with his display or stop altogether.
Mr Hill’s defence said the routine was so badly executed that the only explanation was that the experienced pilot was cognitively impaired possible due to gravitational forces or a lack of oxygen. In extremes, pilots can become unconscious, and it’s believed to have caused the death of an RAF Red Arrows pilot who crashed in 2011.
Blackout doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve completely passed out. What it does mean is that you’ve lost all your sensory perception. says Mr Petrie.
During his evidence in the witness box, Mr Hill tried to explain his actions at Shoreham, and to defend his reputation. As well as videos of the crash, footage was shown of Mr Hill performing aerobatics in the Hawker Hunter at other air displays.
But he didn’t apologise for the catastrophic consequences of the crash, which upset some of the bereaved families who were in court.
Caroline Schlt lost her son Jacob in the disaster and told Sky News: We all felt that Andrew Hill had to take responsibility for what happened.
They were very lengthy pieces of video footage that we sat through and it was almost like a masterclass in this is Andrew Hill and this is how he flies. And perhaps his lawyers had told him not to say anything about any sort of remorse, but It just seemed almost like he was lecturing us rather than, as I said, taking responsibility.
Her husband Bob questions why such fast jets are even flown at displays.
He said: They weren’t designed for looping the loop. They were designed for air defence. They were fighter bombers. I suppose It might be an entertainment to watch a juggernaut doing handbrake turns, I don’t know. It just seemed a bit bizarre really.
Understandably the Shoreham disaster had a profound impact on air displays. Hundreds of thousands of spectators flock to see them all over the country, but the rules have been tightened, fast jets cannot perform aerobatics over populated areas, and Hawker Hunters are still banned from performing at all.
Oliver Wheeldon from the Heritage Aircraft Trust, who owns and flies a Gnat jet which used to belong to the Red Arrows defends the use of ex-military jets in displays.
He said: Everyone displays to their own personal limits and if that means that people no longer feel comfortable displaying to their personal limit – that would normally include loops, barrel rolls and other what we consider to be high energy manoeuvres, I think that would be a shame for the public because part of the spectacle is to display these aircraft in the context of what they were designed for.
And if all of a sudden we only feel inclined to, for personal risk and other reasons to fly them straight past the crowd, straight and level, I think the nation’s lost something.
The display business argues that this was an isolated tragic incident, the first public fatalities an air display since 31 died at the Farnborough air show in 1952. But that’s no comfort to the families of the 11 men who died in such a horrific way.
Mr Hill may have no memory of the crash, but the bereaved relatives will never forget his catastrophic mistake.
(c) Sky News 2019: Shoreham air disaster pilot Andy Hill cleared of manslaughter