A vintage fighter jet crashed killing 11 men when it hit a road and burst into a fireball during a failed airshow stunt “purely” because of “pilot error”, a court heard.
Andrew Hill was flying the Hawker Hunter too low when he lost control over the A27 during the Shoreham Airshow in 2015, jurors were told on Wednesday.
The 1950s fighter jet plummeted onto the West Sussex dual carriageway while it was performing a loop stunt at 1.22pm on August 22.
The trained Royal Air Force instructor, who was a British Airways captain at the time, was thrown clear of the aircraft but taken to hospital with serious injuries and placed into an induced coma.
Although an experienced pilot, he had been known to take “risks” and one of his airshow displays the year before was brought to a halt because of his “dangerous” flying, the court heard.
The 54-year-old, of Sandon, Buntingford, Hertfordshire, is standing trial after denying 11 charges of manslaughter by gross negligence.
Members of the victims’ families gathered at the Old Bailey as prosecutor Tom Kark QC opened the case.
Describing it as a “beautiful sunny Saturday”, Mr Kark told jurors Hill was part way through his display when the crash took place.
He said: “The aircraft disintegrated and that crash caused a massive fireball.
“The effects of that crash were devastating and eleven people lost their lives as a result.
“Mr Hill miraculously escaped, because his cockpit separated from the rest of the aircraft ending in a ditch, his seat was thrown out of the cockpit and he was left lying on the ground.
“He was saved by the bravery of firefighters, paramedics and a doctor who managed to get to him despite the fires still burning all around.”
Mr Kark said the plane was in “excellent working condition”, adding: “Until the moment that it crashed, there was nothing wrong with the flying capabilities of that aircraft.
“The crash happened purely because of pilot error.
“The pilot was attempting a manoeuvre called a bent loop which requires the aircraft to reach a specific height before it begins its downward trajectory.
“Mr Hill did not reach the height required, but nevertheless continued the manoeuvre.
“In short, he did not have the height to pull the aircraft out of its dive, back to the level flight at a safe height and, as a result he crashed into the ground.
“The prosecution case is that it was Mr Hill’s serious negligence that led directly to the loss of those eleven lives.”
Hill, who sat in the dock wearing a black suit, blue and white striped shirt, blue tie and glasses, will be described as a “highly competent and experienced pilot”, jurors were told.
He served in the Royal Air Force between 1985 and 1994 where he trained to fly, becoming an instructor and fast jet pilot.
During his military career he completed more than 1,600 hours in aircraft including a Jet Provost and a Harrier. He was also a British Airways airbus captain.
He had flown the Hawker Hunter – a large fighter jet built for warfare which first took to the skies in 1955 – a total of 47 hours including at the same airshow the year before.
But when the crash took place Hill “fell far below his usual standards”, Mr Kark said.
His Display Authorisation – a licence issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – authorised him to fly the plane at a minimum height of 100ft during flypasts and 500ft during standard manoeuvres like the loop – during a performance.
Mr Kark said there was a “heavy responsibility” on a pilot’s shoulders to plan their display carefully so no-one is put at risk and it was Hill’s “duty” to ensure the plane remained at the height permitted and did not breach no-fly zones around Shoreham airport.
Although described as a “careful and competent” pilot, Mr Kark said there were times when he had “taken risks” or flown in a way he would not be expected to.
Just a year before the crash at Southport airshow, in Merseyside, Mr Kark said Hill “performed a dangerous manoeuvre” causing organisers to halt the display by issuing what is known as a “stop, stop, stop” call.
“Such a call is a rare event and was issued on that occasion because the manoeuvre he performed took him far too close to the crowd and was dangerous.
“Unfortunately, on this occasion in 2015 at Shoreham no-one had time to call out a ‘stop’ and his display ended in tragedy.”
The victims are Maurice Abrahams, 76; Dylan Archer, 42; Tony Brightwell, 53; Matthew Grimstone, 23; Matt Jones, 24; Graham Mallinson, 72; Daniele Polito, 23; Mark Reeves, 53; Jacob Schilt, 23; Richard Smith, 26; and Mark Trussler, 54, who all lived in Sussex.
The trial is being heard before senior judge Mr Justice Andrew Edis QC and could last eight weeks.
Jurors were told the Air Accident Investigation Branch’s findings on the crash, which were previously published, will not form part of the prosecution’s evidence and should be disregarded.