TONIGHT at 8.49pm, Darlington will remember the sacrifice of a Canadian airman who stayed with his stricken plane to steer it away from the houses down below at the cost of his own life.

Last night, Bill Milner, now 84, recalled how as a 13-year-old boy he watched the drama unfold in the dark skies over the east end of Darlington on January 13, 1945.

At the controls of the Lancaster bomber was Pilot Officer William McMullen, 29. He’d been out on a training exercise from RAF Middleton St George over the North York Moors with his six-man Canadian crew, but as they were preparing to land, they spotted sparks shooting from the outer port engine.

As flames started to creep up the wing, McMullen gave the order to abandon ship, and the crew jumped, parachuting to safety in a line along the A66 from Elton to Sadberge. The last man out, Sgt “Lew” Lewellin, looked back at McMullen who was still in the cockpit and motioned for him to follow out of the hatch.

But McMullen shouted: “There’s only me for it. There are thousands down below.”

With the burning wing dragging the plane in circles, McMullen remained at the controls, fighting to steer it away from the rooftops before it plummeted into farmland.

“We’d heard the planes going out hours earlier and then all was quiet until we heard this one coming back, and it sounded peculiar,” remembers Bill, who was working with an older friend, Jim Wade, on a car in a garage off Lingfield Lane. “We went outside and the plane was passing overhead. It was all in flames and we saw the white canopies of the parachutes.

“On the other side of the road was a hedge and farmland. The plane was losing height, and as it went past Thompson’s farm, it clipped the top of the buildings and set them on fire before coming down.

“Jim immediately set off across the ploughed field, and I went after him in the dark, stumbling, and we opened all the doors of the burning farm buildings and let the animals out.”

McMullen had successfully crashlanded the plane in a field where the Darlington Retail Park now stands, but he had been killed on impact. He’d been catapulted, still strapped to his seat, 120 yards out of the windscreen, but his flying boots were found later in the aircraft, still attached to the rubber pedals.

No one else was even harmed.

“He was classed as a hero,” says Bill, who now lives near Kirkbymoorside. “He’d let the crew all get out but he’d stayed at his post, steered it clear of the town and dropped it in the rural area. If he hadn’t done that, there would have been a lot more lives lost.”

The mayor of Darlington wrote to Thelma, McMullen’s widow, saying: “For sheer self-sacrificing heroism, your husband’s action will be remembered and honoured by the people of Darlington for years to come.”

Tonight, shortly after 8.30pm, people will gather at the memorial on the corner of Allington Way and Lingfield Lane – since renamed McMullen Road – to remember the heroic events of exactly 72 years ago which may have saved a town. All are welcome.