AN airman who sacrificed his own life to save a town is going to be remembered in a Zoom ceremony on Wednesday night at the moment he crashed 76 years ago.

In normal times, at 8.49pm on the anniversary of Pilot Office William McMullen’s death, a crowd gathers near the spot where he made the ultimate sacrifice to remember his heroism. McMullen could have jumped from his stricken bomber but instead stayed at the controls to steer it away from the houses of Darlington.

Last year, on the 75th anniversary, the nation was battling Storm Brendan but still well over 100 people turned up at the monument in McMullen Road to pay their respects.

However, this year, with the nation in lockdown battling the coronavirus pandemic, The Northern Echo has joined forces with Darlington Historical Society to create an online ceremony which everybody is invited to attend.

It will begin at 8.30pm with opening remarks by the mayor of Darlington, Cllr Chris McEwan.

Cllr McEwan said: “Even in these dark and challenging times, it is important that we continue our traditions and we as a town should do our utmost to commemorate and remember the ultimate sacrifice made by those from previous generations in our community.

“McMullen in all likelihood saved countless lives through his selfless action, and so it is right that we acknowledge him.”

The town’s MP, Peter Gibson, will be involved in the ceremony, and it is hoped that Geoff Hill, of the Middleton St George Memorial Association, will be able to display the propeller from McMullen’s Lancaster that was retrieved from the crash site and which has, until recently, been in a private collection in Northumberland.

The Echo’s Chris Lloyd will tell the story of McMullen’s sacrifice.

The Zoom gathering is being hosted by the Historical Society. To join, email with the word “McMullen” in the subject field. We will then send you a link to click on which should take you straight into the ceremony.

We ask people to join at around 8.20pm on Wednesday ready for our ceremony to start at 8.30pm. It will conclude with a minute’s silence at 8.49pm, which is when McMullen crashed into farmland on January 13, 1945.

A FATEFUL 14 minutes turned William McMullen into a war hero.

One moment 76 years ago, he was at the controls of his Lancaster bomber, returning to RAF Middleton St George after a routine training flight; the next, his engine was on fire, his crew were baling out and he had a split second decision to make: should he follow them out of the hatch and parachute to safety, or should he stay with his stricken craft and attempt to steer it away from the hundreds of houses beneath him?

"It's only me for it," he said to the last crew member to jump. "There are thousands down below."

In his last minutes, Pilot Officer McMullen succeeded in guiding his plane over the rooftops of the east end of Darlington before crashing into a field, killing himself instantaneously.

The mayor of Darlington wrote to his widow, Thelma, at home in Canada with their five-year-old daughter, Donna. He said: "For sheer self-sacrificing heroism, your husband's action will be remembered and honoured by the people of Darlington for years to come.”

McMullen had been born in Toronto in 1912 and had come over to fight for the British Empire in 1944, and was posted to fly bombers at RAF Middleton St George – now Teesside airport.

On Saturday, January 13, 1945, with his all-Canadian crew, he was sent on a three-hour cross-country navigation exercise as bad weather had grounded them for the previous three weeks.

They set out at 5.47pm, just as the daylight was fading, aboard Lancaster KB793. It was all routine radar stuff carried out at 10,000ft over the North York Moors. At 8.35pm, exercise over, McMullen called Goosepool for “joining instructions”. He was told visibility was 3,500ft, that there was a thin layer of cloud at 1,800ft and there was an 11mph North-North-East wind on landing – good conditions and he’d be touching down within ten minutes.

He instructed his engineer, Sgt “Lew” Lewellin, to keep the engines at 1,950rpm so the descent speed would be 200mph, and Lewellin wrote in his log: “All temperatures and pressures normal. All four engines running evenly.”

But there was a fault developing in the outer port Rolls Royce Merlin engine. Flight Sgt Steve Ratsoy, the wireless operator who was further down the fuselage, reported that it was emitting a shower of sparks and was glowing red. McMullen ordered Lewellin to press the feathering button to close it down.

As he did so, Ratsoy reported that a sheet of flame shot from the engine, that the red glow was spreading along the wing and that there now appeared to be flames licking at the engine cover.

It later transpired that the feathering pipe was not protected against fire and had already burned away. Therefore, when Lewellin pressed the button to shut the engine down, he was actually forcing oil out of the pipe so that it fell onto the red hot surfaces, causing the sheet of flame. Rather than stopping the fire, he was pouring oil onto it...

At 2,500ft over Acklam, with three engines still working and McMullen still in control of the plane, he gave the order to abandon the aircraft. Jump, jump, jump...

The crew baled out in order and landed, plop, plop, plop, along the line of the A66 between Elton and Sadberge.

At 600ft, engineer Lewellin was last to leave the stricken aircraft. As he stood by the main door, he looked over to McMullen at the controls. Whether McMullen really did utter the heroic last words that were ascribed to him in the following Monday’s Northern Despatch newspaper –"It's only me for it. There are thousands down below" – is known only by the propaganda department at the Air Ministry.

But in that split second, the pilot would have seen Darlington - population 80,000 - laid out before him. He stayed with the plane as it headed towards the town centre, and fought with its controls to steer it towards the farmland.

Hundreds of Darlingtonians saw it blazing brightly in the dark night sky as, at about 600ft, it cleared the last of the rooftops of the Eastbourne area and then plunged to earth. It cartwheeled 150 yards across the field of Lingfield Farm, losing various bits of flaming fuselage as it went, its fuel tanks exploding vividly and its bullets dancing like firecrackers across the top of the soil.

The pilot was dead, 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 in the cockpit where he had remained in those dying seconds.

All Darlington was convinced McMullen hadn’t jumped because he wanted to save them. Because his name was not released for some weeks, they christened him the “Gallant Airman”, and they wrote to the local papers praising him.

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

The town collected £1,000 for its Gallant Airman and, when his name became known, offered it to his widow and young daughter back in Canada. Thelma refused it, saying it would be best put to use in war-ravaged Britain.

The money was used to endow two children's cots at the Memorial Hospital, and the road near the crash site was named in the pilot’s honour.

Mayor Jimmy Blumer told her: "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."