Royal Air Force

Red Arrows: A dramatic incident

The sky in Brighton has also had its worshippers, in fact since 1911, when Shoreham, Britain's first licensed airfield, opened. Ever since then, Brighton's air traffic has seen its ups and downs; the most surprising of which happened on 17 May 1980.

A Saturday crowd witnessed a spectacular display of aeronautics when a Red Arrow's "Hawk" piloted by Sqn Ldr S. Johnson, clipped a yacht's mast and plunged into the sea between Brighton's two piers.

The incident left the pilot rather wet and shaken, and the Royal Air Force revising the minumum flight height above sea level from 35 to 100 ft. Fortunately, not all flights are so dramatic and Gatwick only half an hour away by train has an excellent safety record. Gatwick has provided Brighton with an international doorway to the world.

This page was added on 22/03/2006.
Comments about this page
Yes, I remember it well, having been one of the people standing right in the middle among the crowd of spectators up on....was it Marine Parade?...watching this breathtaking performance up in the air when at one point these two planes came down in a long bow and one of them headed straight towards us. Then something happened, like something dropping into the water. It seemed like the very last moment before it would have crashed right into the spot where I and my friends Ian and Susi were standing, when the plane changed its direction, now parallel to the shoreline, kind of turned on its back and plunged into the water maybe two hundred meters away from us. When hitting the water it somersaulted and that was that. I don't think I remember any kind of explosion but it took the crowd quite a while to realise what had happened and then a loud 'wow' from thousands of throats was heard. This little experience still means for me a moment when I could have easily died in a blast of fire had the plane continued its course after the pilot had ejected from it. So my dear Mr Pilot, I guess I owe you my life, and many others do too, because you must have reacted really fast in turning that thing around before hopping out.
By Karl-artur Haag (11/10/2003)
I was telling my work colleague this story today and I thought I would see if I could find it on the web and, lo and behold, I found this site. My story is as follows: my friend Beverly and I were sitting in front of the pier that day watching this display and only a few seconds before the crash happened, Bev said "wouldn't it be awful if they crashed". No sooner had she said it than it happened. We thought the pilot had thrown something out of the plane but we know it ended up being the pilot himself. It was a very scary moment. Only a matter of minutes before that plane crashed, a few people were frolicking in the water at the exact spot where the plane ditched. Someone was looking after them that day. And we all thank that pilot for his quick thinking and expertise.
By Karen Brigden (15/10/2004)

I just watched another Red Arrows Brighton display (18th September 2009), and googled and found this story. There's a pic of the pilot bailing here http://bit.ly/LqeYJ. Apparently he is the chief pilot at Branson's Virgin Galactic now! What a dude.

By Max Williams (20/09/2009)

It was about 150 feet between the Palace Pier where it went in. The collision took place between the piers. As a 10 year old on Albion beach I watched two legs dangling from a parachute then peered through the structure of the pier to see the plane, a Gnat I believe, plunge into the sea about 70 feet from the shore.

By Tim Hodges (23/08/2011)

I was there taking photos and have one of the plane hitting the water.

By Clive Kelly (12/01/2012)

Shortly before the Brighton accident, I was going to breakfast in a hotel in Muenster, Germany when I heard English spoken. It was a group of gentlemen in RAF flight suits and we struck up a conversation. They were the Red Arrows in their first season on the BAe Hawk. I wished them safety and success before we parted. It was quite a shock a few days later to see the TV coverage of the accident with the Hawk clipping the mast of the yacht and the pilot ejecting as the Hawk began to roll inverted. http://www.ejection-history.org.uk/PROJECT/Biographies/J/Johnson_S-red-arrows/Johnson_S.htm

By Raymond Cheung (29/07/2012)

I was sitting on the beach just east of the Palace Pier when the plane hit the water and that was on the east side of the pier, so it didn't hit the water between them. The pilot came down on the west side. When it happened we thought it was part of the show. Cant believe it was 32 years ago.

By Andy Mountford (30/07/2012)

I remember this fairly well. I was sitting on the green metal fence that ran along the side of the Volks railway track near Peter Pan's playground about 1/4 - 1/2 mile from the pier. We heard a bang and saw something drop which my brothers and I thought was a barrel or something at first that had been dropped. The plane then went straight into the sea directly opposite us, further from the pier than others have said. The plane went straight in and a cloud of the coloured smoke came up (this might be what someone else thought was a somersault which I definitely didn't see happen). We didn't say anything for a few seconds as everything where I was went quiet and people just looked at each other in disbelief for a few seconds before the excitement kicked in. We then found out what we had thought was a barrel was the pilot ejecting and he had clipped a yacht's mast which caused the crash. It was too far out to have been a risk to swimmers but could have hit one of the many boats from the Marina in the area.

By Alex (18/08/2013)

I was on the nudist beach watching this only about 100 metres away. The plane looped around, flew parallel to the beach and just swerved out to sea and dropped like a stone into the water. People in the water started to swim out to the point it hit the water thinking the pilot was still inside. it was only later when l watched the news that l knew he had ejected. lf the plane had swerved left it would have killed hundreds of people who were sunbathing on a hot day. lf l could have got my hands on the pilot that day l would have killed him myself for putting my life in danger.

By craig duckhouse (14/04/2016)

Hi, I was an eye witness to this. I was on the beach and I heard a cannon like sound (two booms in quick succession?) and saw the plane - and here's my distinct recollection, fly on, with no pilot, over the crowded pier, and crash into the water. Based on above I'm not sure which pier but I thought it was the main (East) pier. The pilot was bruised and shaken but OK and as he got into the ambulance, the public started clapping.

By Paul Reeve (24/03/2017)

I've just read the clear and highly informative MoD letter about this (Googled) and yes, the plane flew over the Palace (East) pier, it did not crash between the piers, that is where the impact happened. 

By Paul R (24/03/2017)

The plane clipped the mast right in front of where I was sitting on the beach with my three boys. I saw the pilot eject and to me the plane was heading directly towards the pier, but at the last moment it went over the pier before coming down in the sea. There was a stunned silence before everyone realised what they had just witnessed. We then walked along towards the pier and saw the pilot in a police car go past us. I couldn't forget that day for ages afterwards.

By Peter Guy (25/03/2017)

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