A Gulf War veteran died when he was accidentally ejected from an RAF Tornado doing a ‘barrel roll’ stunt at 5,000ft and his parachute failed, an inquest heard today.
Tragic Mike Harland, 44, was working as a navigator for a private company testing the RAF Tornado GR4 (similar to the one pictured) when the accident occurred in November 2007.
The supersonic plane was carrying out an ”inverted roll” – performing a barrel roll while flying upside down – when his ejector-seat suddenly deployed.
The married-dad-of two, a former RAF Squadron Leader, plunged 5,000ft to his death from the upturned plane as he sat strapped to the seat.
Coroner Jacqueline Lake told a jury that the two-seat fighter jet had previously undergone routine servicing and was in the process of being tested.
She said that the pilot was carrying out the manoeuvre when Mr Harland’s seat ”detached from the aircraft and fell to the ground”.
Mrs Lake added that Mr Harland’s parachute was ”disabled” and he fell to his death, but that no-one had been prosecuted as a result of the incident.
The jury also heard expert evidence about ejector seats and the locking mechanism designed to stop seats slipping when planes were upside down.
Martin Lowe head of engineering for ejection seats at the MoD said he was ‘not aware of any failure’ in the Tornado ejection seat prior to November 2007.
He said: ”The only item that could feasibly fail was the spring because you have got big lumps of metal.
”Speaking to Martin Baker (head of the company who manufactured the seats) they have had no incidents of any spring failing.
”So in the sense of flying hours, that spring has done several million flying hours, tens of millions of flying hours, with no failures.
”In the days after the incident, my thought was there has been a mechanical failure. The only likely mechanical failure to me was the spring or the only other failure was somebody has done something wrong in some fashion.”
Mr Lowe added that he had ordered a set of new springs for the entire fleet following Mr Harland’s death.
He said: ”It seems to me that effectively some of them were original springs 13 years old.”
Married Mike, of Grantham, Lincs., worked as a civil navigator and manager for BAE, which services Tornados at RAF Marham, for four years before his death.
He was taking part in a routine test flight from RAF Marham when he suddenly ejected from the craft at 5,000ft at around 4pm on November 14.
The pilot, who also works for BAE Systems, landed safely at the base around 30 miles away.
He made an emergency radio call to report that the engineer was missing and that he had not seen a parachute after the seat ejected.
Mike’s body was found in a field at South Creake, near Fakenham, Norfolk, about 45 minutes later and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed the death and an RAF Board of Inquiry was convened to investigate the tragedy.
Yesterday, the inquest heard how the ejection seat is deployed by pulling a lever between the passengers’ legs.
An explosive charge is then triggered which propels the seat and fractures the Perspex canopy and the parachute should have opened of its own accord.
The jury also heard that a modification to the piston of the ejector seat on all Tornado’s had been recently carried.
The aircraft in which Mr Harland was flying was one of the first to have been modified, having undergone maintenance three months prior to the incident.
A post mortem revealed the cause of death was due to multiple injuries and results showed that he may have hit his head on the tail of the aircraft as he fell.
BAE Systems employs about 250 people at RAF Marham and holds a £130million contract to maintain and upgrade the RAF’s fleet of Tornado GR4 aircraft.
Mr Harland’s wife Helen and two children were not at yesterday’s hearing, which is ongoing expected to conclude on Friday.