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Shoreham airshow crash pilot cleared over deaths of 11 people

Friday, 08 March, 2019, 20:05
Shoreham airshow crash pilot cleared over deaths of 11 people

The pilot in control of a jet that crashed at Shoreham airshow, killing 11 people, has been found not guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence.

Andrew Hill, 54, a British Airways Airbus captain at the time, had been accused of the “cardinal sin” of flying “too low and too slow” as he attempted a bent loop manoeuvre. He said he had blacked out , having experienced “cognitive impairment” brought on by hypoxia, possibly caused by the effect of G-force.

About 20,000 spectators were at the airshow on a sunny Saturday afternoon when the eight-tonne former military Hawker Hunter jet crashed on to the busy A27 dual carriageway and exploded in a fireball on 22 August 2015.
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He had told the court he had no memory of the crash or the events immediately before it, and had never watched video footage of it. Giving evidence, he said the devastation caused was a dominant thought in his life.

He had denied 11 counts of manslaughter by gross negligence. The victims were 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 families of the victims wept in court as the unanimous verdicts were delivered after jurors had deliberated for just over seven hours over three days. The judge, Mr Justice Edis, acknowledged the families were “enormously upset” and he praised the “very dignified way” they had conducted themselves throughout the trial.

Hill, speaking outside the Old Bailey after the verdict, read out the names of the 11 men and said: “I’m truly sorry for the part I played in their deaths”.

An official government report into the crash, published in 2017, found pilot error to be the cause.

The parents of Matthew Grimstone who died, said they were devastated by the verdict. In a statement issued through Sussex police, Sue and Phil Grimstone, said: “There seems to be no justice for our son Matthew and all 11 men who died in such tragic circumstances.

“We were always told by the police that to prove guilty due to ‘gross negligence’ the bar was set very high. Despite having compelling evidence from the cockpit footage and expert witnesses, it was not enough.”

Leslye Polito, the mother of Daniele Polito, a builder and father of two children, one of whom was born after his death, said: “I feel extremely disappointed, very upset and primarily let down by the justice system when someone who has clearly made some very bad errors of judgment is allowed to walk free.

“The whole fact that it was avoidable, that was the hardest bit to consider and process. It’s still the hardest part,” she said. She is one of many who have called for the Shoreham airshow not to be held again as a mark of respect.

The families have called for a “thorough and frank” investigation to prevent future tragedies at airshows. Inquests into the deaths at Shoreham were adjourned pending the criminal trial, and full inquests can now be heard.

Hill fractured his nose, ribs and part of his lower spine and suffered a collapsed lung and serious bruising in the crash. He was placed into an induced coma before being discharged from hospital after a month.

The experienced former RAF instructor and fast jet pilot, was said to have told paramedics he had blacked out at the controls and had felt unwell immediately before the crash. The court heard medical checks before and after the crash have not established whether he had any condition which may have affected his health.

Of those who died, five were in vehicles while six were on the roadside, some watching the air display and others waiting to cross the busy road. Accounts from survivors, read out in a hushed courtroom, described how they were blown off their feet, and had to run for their lives to escape the fireball. Some suffered terrible burns.

The crash caused the greatest loss of life at an airshow since 1952, when 31 people, including the pilot, were killed at the Farnborough.
For a conviction for manslaughter by gross negligence, the jury would have had to have been satisfied that Hill’s conduct was so bad as to amount to a criminal act or omission. Jurors were told that the case hinged on the question of whether the defendant was incapacitated in such a way that he was not in control of the aircraft.

Sarah Stewart, a partner at the law firm Stewarts, which represented some of the relatives, said compensation claims had been settled. “Many families do not look for compensation. They want answers so that future deaths can be prevented,” she said.

Four years on from the crash, the families “have had to painfully relive the circumstances of their loved one’s death again and again,” she said. The verdicts went some way toward those answers, “but it is only one part of the jigsaw”.

Rebecca Smith of the law firm Irwin Mitchell, representing another 17 affected, said: “While there have been some recommendations from the Air Accident Investigation Branch following their early reports, it is only once the whole event has been examined at the inquest that lessons can be fully learned to prevent something like this from ever happening again”.

Hill profile
Hill, a trained Royal Airforce instructor, who was a British Airways captain at the time, has described himself as an A-grade student. He grew up in Kent, where he attended a private boarding school. After Cambridge University, where he graduated in computer science, he went straight into the RAF, winning a competition when flying a Jet Provost and was ranked a top performing student and selected to become an instructor.

Training in combat, he took part in active service for a month in the 1990s, monitoring a no-fly zone in northern Iraq. He flew Harrier jets, capable of vertical take-off and landing, and won an award for ideas on improving aircraft safety procedures.

On entering civil aviation, he first became a commercial pilot with Virgin Atlantic, before moving to British Airways, progressing to the most senior position of captain.