ON January 13, 1945, a fateful 14 minutes turned William McMullen into a war hero. On Saturday, from 8.30pm, a group of people gathered at the spot where he crashlanded his Lancaster bomber, killing himself but sparing the thousands of people who lived in the streets around. Here's the story in 14 key points – one for each of those fateful minutes.

The Northern Echo: REMEMBERING A HERO: The McMullen memorial ceremony on McMullen Road three years ago


At 8.35pm on January 13, 1945, Pilot Officer McMullen radioed RAF Middleton St George from over the North York Moors and said he would be landing his six-man Canadian crew in ten minutes after a routine training exercise.


Almost immediately, a shower of sparks was noticed coming from the outer port engine. It quickly turned into a sheet of flame which began to eat its way up the wing.


At 2,500ft over Acklam, Toronto-born McMullen, 33, ordered his men to abandon ship.


They all parachuted safely to earth between Elton and Sadberge, along the route of the A66.


The last out was Sgt "Lew" Lewellin who, before he jumped, looked over at McMullen and motioned frantically for him to leave the cockpit and prepare to jump.


But with the east end of Darlington approaching, McMullen had already made his decision. According to the Air Ministry, he replied: "No, there's only me for it – but there are thousands down below."


People rushed out of their houses in the Yarm Road area, and saw the burning plane circling at 600ft – with the pilot seeming to steer it away from the rooftops.


At 8.49pm, having cleared the last chimney, the plane plummeted into a field off Lingfield Lane. The flaming fuselage cartwheeled for 150 yards, its fuel tanks exploding, its bullets setting fire to a hay barn.


McMullen was killed on impact, and his body was catapulted 120 yards through the windscreen.


But his rubber flying boots were found still attached to the pedals – he had stayed with the stricken craft to the end.


The people of Darlington hailed him as "the Gallant Airman". In a letter to the Echo's sister paper, the Despatch, W Cooper of Bondgate said: "He deliberately gave his life, thereby preventing the endangering of life and property in Darlington."


The official accident report concluded: "It is noted that the pilot retained control of the aircraft sufficiently long enough to avoid crashing into the built-up area of Darlington."


McMullen left a widow, Thelma, and a five-year-old daughter, Donna, who turned down the £1,000 raised by The Gallant Airman fund, saying it should be spent locally.


Darlington Mayor Jimmy Blumer told them: "By his actions, the pilot realised that he was steering himself to certain death. Not only Darlington, but the whole of the district was stirred to profound admiration and gratitude which could not be expressed in words at this act of supreme sacrifice.