DECADES have passed since a plane crashed on the outskirts of Darlington - leaving one dead, but saving potentially hundreds.

Stuart McMullen never lived to see his legacy as he sacrificed his own life to keep his ailing Lancaster Bomber away from homes, before crashing in Lingfield.

And today marks exactly 77 years since the Canadian airman's plane went down, prompting stories of disaster and heroism.

The Northern Echo looks back and re-tells the story of how the day unfolded and how Stuart McMullen's legacy has continued to live on.

The Northern Echo:

A collect picture of the crew of the Lancaster bomber. Pilot Officer William McMullen crash landed in a field near Darlington after it caught fire during a training flight, saving the lives of his six crew members and countless residents living below.

On Saturday, January 13, at 5.47pm, Stuart McMullen's Lancaster KB793 took off on a routine navigation exercise, carried out at 10,000ft over the North York Moors.

They had taken off from Goosepool, now the site of Teesside Airport, and had spent around three hours before McMullen informed them of a return within ten minutes.

Read more: Monday marks 75 years since Second World War hero sacrificed his own life to save lives in Darlington 

As Memories recalled on the 75th anniversary of the crash, Engineer Sgt “Lew” Lewellin wrote in his log: “All temperatures and pressures normal. All four engines running evenly.”

But almost immediately a fault developed in the outer port Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, which emitted a shower of sparks.

Horror unfolded as the shower quickly became a sheet of flame, and a red glow began spreading up the wing.

Then 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. 

All six parachuted safely to earth, drifting downwards along what became the A66 between Elton and Sadberge.

At 600ft, engineer Lewellin was last to leave. As he stood by the main door, he looked over to McMullen at the controls, and gestured for him to leave.

Read more: The hero the town forgot

But McMullen’s mind was already made up - he would sacrifice himself to save the town.

According to the Air Ministry, over the roar of the developing catastrophe, McMullen said: “It’s only me for it. There are thousands down below.”

He could have jumped to safety – Lewellin landed unscathed 500 yards from the crash site – but a town could have been wiped out.

Population of Darlington ahead of him

The Northern Echo covered it at the time and reported that an eyewitness said it “and looked as though it was going to drop somewhere in the town.

"Then it turned east and a few seconds later we heard a crash, followed by a few muffled explosions and the glare of a fire.”

In his last moments, McMullen fought to keep the plane away from the homes of the Yarm Road area and, at 8.49pm, its undercarriage skimmed the rooftops of the last of the houses and plunged to earth in a field belonging to Lingfield Farm.

How the crash unfolded

It cartwheeled 150 yards across the soil, losing various bits of flaming fuselage as it went, its fuel tanks exploding vividly and its bullets dancing like firecrackers.

The hay and oats in the farm’s Dutch barn caught hold immediately and blazed brightly, illuminating the parachutes of McMullen’s colleagues as they drifted slowly down to safety.

McMullen 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.

The official accident report said that a mechanical fault in a piston had caused the initial fire, and it “noted that the pilot retained control of the aircraft sufficiently long enough to avoid crashing into the built-up area of Darlington”.

His legacy 

The Northern Echo:

These days, McMullen's legacy remains a known one - but one that is slowly  fading away as The Northern Echo reported back in 2005.

Formerly Lingfield Lane, the now McMullen Road in Darlington stands as a reminder to his heroic actions.

Meanwhile, a memorial stone was erected on the crash site on the 50th anniversary, in 1995, as a subtle reminder of that fateful day.

To view Echo Memories from Chris Lloyd click here


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