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.

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 Apparently he is the chief pilot at Branson’s Virgin Galactic now! What a dude.

    By Max Williams (18/09/2009)
  • 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 (21/08/2011)
  • I was there taking photos and have one of the plane hitting the water.

    By Clive Kelly (11/01/2012)
  • 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.

    By Raymond Cheung (28/07/2012)
  • 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 (29/07/2012)
  • 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 (17/08/2013)
  • 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 (23/03/2017)
  • 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 (23/03/2017)
  • 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)
  • I too sat on the beach immediately in front of Middle Street and saw the two red arrows pass each other directly in front of me. Just as they crossed I remembered saying ”something just fell in the water behind that boat” and as I said it there was a bang and the pilot ejected, the plane went up and over the pier and hit the water beyond. My thoughts at the time were that the pilot had steered the plane over the pier before ejecting. Others have mentioned that they were in danger on the shore but this is not correct, the only people in danger were those standing on the Palace Pier in the direct path of the stricken plane. The plane was heading for the pier just shoreside of the pier head 3/4 up the length of the pier, so it was a long way from the shore.

    By Andy Benn (25/09/2018)
  • I was standing with my seven year old son on the groyne opposite East Street (the second one west of the Palace Pier) watching Brighton’s annual Red Arrow display. One of the planes was flying low, not far from the shore when we heard an explosion. We then realised the pilot had ejected and was parachuting down into the sea about 100 metres in front of us. To our left, beyond the Pier we saw a plume of smoke rising from the plane crashing into the sea. The beach just to the left of the groyne was the home of the Brighton Swimming Club and a number of the members swam out to the pilot and brought him safely ashore. We were really shaken up because had the plane been flying a bit lower it would have hit the pier with hundreds gathered watching the display. This accident led to Brighton Council banning the annual Red Arrow display in Brighton.

    By Ted Watson (15/10/2018)
  • That day I was standing on top of the roof of the Old Ship Hotel watching the Red Arrows. They all arrived from behind the Old Ship, just as if they were bombing the hotel and flew low straight over the top of me and straight over the beach and then on over the sea to start their display. After about 7 minutes they did a similar manoeuver from behind the Old Ship but this time the left plane veered off sharp towards Rottingdean and the right plane veered off sharp toward Shoreham, they both nearly disappeared into the distance but I could just see them turn back towards Brighton. The remainder of the team flew straight on and up high.
    Now both planes were flying toward each other on a collision course (normal Red Arrow manoeuver) as they approached the Old Ship they both turn sideways to pass each other. They did this straight in front of me so I believe they were in my line of sight.
    What happened next was a bang, something flew upwards and I saw the plane HOP over the Brighton Pier and just like a dart straight into the water and instantly disappear. All this happen in seconds, my immediate thought was a banner was going to open up saying have a happy day of sorts. But it was actually the pilot. All I can say, for many years I have and will always say that that pilot quick reaction saved many life’s that day. That plane was on course to plough through the full Brighton pier of people. I don’t know how he did it but he made his plane hop over the pier. I believe his bottom wing (sideways on) hit a yacht mast. I can confirm there was a yacht close to the beach with loads of little boats. The pilot went up but at an angle and came down further away from the accident. I also remember I think the Navy came to pull the plane out of the sea about 3 days Later.

    By Robert Algar (26/05/2020)
  • I was watching the jet from my balcony by the police station at kingswood flats. I remember saying .. wouldn’t it be strange if it crashed.. I started to will it to crash and it did! I really freaked out like I made it happen. I was 11 years old. I notice someone else posted a similar comment. I wonder how many other people were imposing their will on this poor pilot to crash. Apologies for the morbid comment.

    By Lee Collins (20/09/2020)
  • I went to Fakenham Grammar school with the pilot Steve Johnson…he was in my brothers class in the year above me. His family used to run the petrol station in Lenwade in Norfolk.

    By Mr Graeme Slattery (02/11/2023)
  • I have been interested to read the various recollections of the red arrow incident. I have my own in that I had been drinking and was on the beach just by the nudist beach looking not taking part.
    The incident was surreal I wasn’t paying much attention to the display I was more interested in the scenary to my left. My attention turned to the sky when the wing of the plane hit the mast of a yacht it made a loud noise I turned to see the plane drop silently into the sea right in front of me I didn’t perceive any danger it was almost as though it was meant to happen. it just dived into the water I could see the pilot having ejected floating down and the plane was beneath the water as though it was part of the display I turned to someone next to me and said did you see that? It was silent and eerie, one might have thought the alcohol had a part to play in my perception it’s now 43 years ago but still a vivid memory I thought it was really cool and wanted to see it again but the plane never reappeared I was 36 years old at the time now in the twilight of my life it’s still one of my favourite memories.

    By Rod Clay (03/11/2023)
  • I was standing on King’s Road just to the west of the Palace Pier.
    Then, as now, I was a keen photographer and a dab hand at panning to follow a moving object. As a consequence I have some great shots of the Red Arrows display on that day.
    I had taken several shots of the solo planes zooming in, and I was tracking the plane coming from the west in my view finder.
    In those days there was no new-fangled digital instant photo stuff – every shot had to be sent off and developed and printed, and paid for, before you could see it.
    So as the plane approached and was in front of me, I didn’t bother “wasting” a photo on a shot I knew I already had.
    So as a consequence I DIDN’T press the shutter as the plane flew past….
    It remains the best photo I never took.
    What I DO have is a shot of the owner of the yacht incredulously looking up at the top metre or so of his mast which had been bent as the plane hit it.
    What had happened was that the air brake of the jet was deployed, and this had hit the top of the mast of a yacht that had trespassed too close to the shore.
    ( The air brake is a big panel projecting downwards from the underside of the plane to slow it up for the manouevre.)
    Like I’m sure many others of my age reading this, that photo is buried in a box somewhere with hundreds ( thousands ???? ) of others which I’ll get round to sorting sometime……….

    By Dave Pitcher (11/02/2024)

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