THE propeller from the Lancaster bomber which crashed into a field on the east of Darlington exactly 75 years ago this evening will return to the site for the first time in decades as people remember the airman who sacrificed his own life to save the town.

Aviation historian Geoff Hill, of Sedgefield, will bring the propeller of KB793 to tonight’s gathering which is timed to coincide with the moments on January 13, 1945, as Pilot Officer William McMullen fought to steer his stricken plane away from the houses of Darlington.

Geoff, the chairman of the Middleton St George Memorial Association, discovered the propeller in an aviation collection in Northumberland.

“It is amazing, absolutely unbelievable,” he said, after first clapping eyes on it on Thursday. “It’s taken me 50 years to track this down. I knew that there were artefacts relating to the plane because they have been on display at the Sunderland Air Museum, but nothing was ever said about the prop – I didn’t in my wildest dreams think that the propeller would be among them.”

The bomber’s engine caught fire over Middlesbrough as it prepared to return after a training exercise to RAF Middleton St George, and at 8.35pm, pilot McMullen ordered his crewmates to abandon ship. When the last of them asked if he was jumping with them, he shouted: “There’s only me for it. There are thousands down below.”

He retained sufficient control to steer the plane away from the east side of Darlington but had no chance when, at 8.49pm, it plummeted into farmland off what is now McMullen Road.

Most of the wreckage was taken away from Lingfield Farm by air accident investigators for analysis, but a surprising number of fragments were retrieved by souvenir hunters. The propeller itself is believed to have remained at the fire until it was developed in the 1970s.

“It is absolutely brilliant,” said Geoff. “It is scraped and scratched, it’s bent, there’s fire damage on it, but it still has the original paintwork and the yellow tip, and there are remnants of the manufacturer’s stamp and serial number on it.

“And there’s an anomaly about it.”

It is a needle-blade – a long thin, propeller which was replaced as the war dragged on by the paddle-blade, a wider propeller that moved more air. Presumably, the early blade was still attached to McMullen’s plane in 1945 because it had survived undamaged for several years of conflict.

The propeller will be on show at tonight’s gathering on the corner of McMullen Road and Allington Way. The commemoration starts at 8.30pm, and the mayor of Darlington, Cllr Nick Wallis, will lay a wreath on the memorial. It will finish with silence at 8.49pm as the plane came down.

It is hoped that the propeller will eventually go on display with Geoff’s collection of memorabilia relating to RAF Middleton St George when it is rehoused in the revamped Teesside Airport.