A PAINTING capturing the moment a Royal Air Force crew braved treacherous weather to light up the scene of a lifeboat disaster as rescuers searched for survivors has been unveiled.

Turning Night into Day by aviation artist Malcolm Reeves was commissioned by retired RAF Squadron Leader Tony Cowan as tribute to coxswain John Miller and the crew of the Seaham lifeboat, RNLB George Elmy, as well as aircraft captain Flight Lieutenant Anthony Pasco RCAF and his crew of 206 Squadron, RAF.

Nine men died on November 17, 1962, when the George Elmy was overturned only 30 yards from Seaham Harbour’s South Pier by huge waves. The dead included all five crew members and four fishermen they had just rescued. Donald Burrell, 32, who had been on the fishing coble, was the sole survivor.

The painting was presented to the the East Durham Heritage and Lifeboat Centre, at Seaham Harbour Marina, where the restored George Elmy is on display.

It depicts an RAF Avro Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft, flown by Flt Lt Pasco, illuminating Chemical Beach, south of Seaham Harbour, with 1.75in flares to help those searching the beach for survivors.

The lifeboat had been driven ashore on Chemical Beach, south of Liddle Stack, where it can be seen upside down.

The acrylic painting is based on the accounts of the tragedy written at the time, and further accounts from the surviving members of the aircrew – Harry Hickling, the co-pilot, together with Tony Morgans and David Reville who were sensor operators.

Mr Cowan, of Durham, said: “I went to the museum some years ago and realised the story wasn’t quite correct with regard to the RAF . A leaflet said it had been a Shackleton, but it was a different model, and said the crew had come from RAF Kinloss.

“A colleague Phil Styles, who is now an aviation historian went to The National Archives and after a lot of work down there and managed to work out that the actual aircraft involved came from RAF St Mawgan in Cornwall and was flown by a crew of ten from 206 squadron.

“After the George Elmy had capsized the Seaham harbour master organised a search of the beach. There was a low cloud base and the seas were coming in when the RAF was scrambled.

"There were no helicopters that could do the job at the time that could do the job and the maritime patrol did not have searchlights to illuminate the surface of the water, so they had to fire off flares."

He added: “My background is also maritime patrol, having flown the Nimrod. I am full of admiration for that RAF crew – to be flying at night along a strange piece of coastline where they had never been before, firing flares out of their multibarrelled gun, which is on rear of fuselage.

“The co-pilot Harry Hickling, who is is still alive, said to be able to do the job they had to fly very low below the cloud base. He recalls having to pull up to make sure they cleared the cliffs at Nose's Point before turning and flying in the opposite direction. They were there for over an hour.”

The painting and the full story the act of heroism by local volunteer members of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution is told at the museum, open from 11am to 3pm, Thursday to Sunday.

The five lifeboatmen who died were John Miller, Frederick Gippert, Arthur L Brown, James Farrington and Arthur Brown. The four member of the crew of the Economy, who all perished, were Gordon Burrell, George Firth, Joseph Kennedy and David Burrell, the son of Donald Burrell.