THELMA McMullen must have wept as she read the type-written letter. "For sheer self-sacrificing heroism, your husband's action will be remembered and honoured by the people of Darlington for years to come," it said.

"Our sorrow is mixed with great pride in the knowledge that our mighty Empire produces men like William Stuart McMullen."

Written by the mayor of a town of which she had probably never heard in faraway England, the letter can only have been a little comfort to Thelma in Canada.

Her husband was dead, killed on a training flight. Her life was shattered, and her five-year-old daughter would grow up not knowing the love of a father.

And if only her husband had been a little more selfish, he might have survived. He had, after all, ample time to bale out - all six of his crew had parachuted safely down to land - but he had deliberately stayed with his aircraft to the bitter end.

His crew had expected him to follow them out of the door to safety, but he remained in his cockpit, guiding the stricken plane away from the houses and into the countryside of this foreign land.

The last one out had even heard his declaration of intent to stay at his post.

"It's only me for it," he said. "There are thousands down below."

Pilot Office William Stuart McMullen had sacrificed himself to save a town.

McMullen was born in Toronto. He was educated at Leslie Street Public School and Riverdale Collegiate. He married Thelma in 1937, and worked as a sales representative for Coca Cola and as a driller in a goldmine in British Columbia. He was regarded by his colleagues as quiet and affable. He was 5ft 6ins, with blue eyes, fair hair and an inch-long scar on his left hand. He enjoyed baseball and swimming.

And he loved flying.

His daughter, Donna Mae Barber, said in 1985: "He loved flying and every bit of spare money he had when he was young was spent on lessons.

"One of his jobs before the war was as a bush pilot, but he also worked in the goldmines."

On his application form to join the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940, he wrote: "There is nothing I would like better than to be in the air force and see some action."

However, the war had come a little too late for him. Flying was a young man's game, and he was pushing 30 - his nickname among the aircrew was "Grandad".

"I'm not sure of his real age even today," said Donna in 1985.

"He claimed that he was born in 1915 because of the age restrictions on pilots but he would have been older than that."

When he died in a snowy field on the outskirts of Darlington on January 13, 1945, his age was given variously as between 29 and 33.

McMullen won his wings in November 1942 and came to England in 1944 to learn to fly Lancaster bombers. He flew his first - and, as fate would have it, his only - operational mission as a trainee pilot alongside a more experienced flyer.

In August 1944, his crew became available as they baled out over France and lost their pilot.

On Christmas Eve, this new team was posted to RAF Goosepool at Middleton St. George. They joined 428 Squadron - nicknamed "Ghost" and with the motto "usque ad finem" (to the very end).

It was a quiet time of the war and, to keep the crew sharp after three weeks of inactivity, they were sent on a three-hour cross-country navigation exercise. They set out at 5.47pm on January 13, 1945, just as the daylight was fading, aboard Lancaster KB793.

It was all routine radar stuff carried out at 10,000ft and at 8.35pm, exercise over, they began their descent home. They headed in over the North York Moors and, as they dropped to about 2,500ft over Middlesbrough, the wireless operator, Flight Sergeant Steve Ratsoy, noticed sparks from the outer port engine.

McMullen levelled out. The sparking continued. He tried to "feather" the engine, but when he pressed the button a sheet of flame shot out of the wing. He knew then they were in difficulty.

But not insurmountable difficulty. He regained a little height and ordered them all, except the engineer, to abandon the aircraft. Jump, jump, jump...

The bomb-aimer, Flt Sgt H Sims, was first out through the nose hatch, followed by the navigator, Flight Officer Bill Sage. Flt Sgt Ratsoy and the mid-upper gunner, Flt Sgt Ted Dykes, went through the main door, and the rear gunner, Flt Sgt John Feeley, exited directly from his turret.

The engineer, Sergeant 'Lew' Lewellin, stood by the main door. McMullen uttered his last known words - "It's only me for it. There are thousands down below" - and gave Lewellin the nod.

"I stood by the escape hatch for a moment to see if the pilot was following me," the engineer told the air accident inquiry. "He wasn't, so I baled out."

There was cloud cover at 1,500ft, and as McMullen burst through it he would have seen Darlington - population 80,000 - laid out before him.

The Darlingtonians beneath him, used to the noise of healthy engines making their way home, were quickly aware that something was wrong. The unusual sound had hundreds rushing from their homes. They saw that the port wing was well ablaze and the flames changing colour from fierce orange - burning fuel - to fatal white - burning metal.

The pilot appeared to be in command, although the plane was flying in broad circles over the town. Clearly, it was in great difficulty, but it wasn't cork-screwing downwards out of control.

At about 600ft, all that changed. The plane dived steeply. For McMullen, there was no way out. He didn't even try, preferring instead to fight with the plane to get it over the last line of houses.

Its undercarriage skimmed the rooftops of the Eastbourne district as the ground hurtled up to meet him.

The aircraft hit at a steep angle. It cartwheeled for 150 yards across the field of Lingfield Farm, losing various bits of flaming fuselage as it went, the fuel tanks exploding vividly and the bullets dancing like firecrackers. The hay and oats in the farm's Dutch barn caught hold immediately and blazed brightly.

McMullen was dead, killed on impact. He'd been catapulted, still strapped to his seat, 120 yards out of the windscreen. His flying boots were found later in the aircraft, still attached to the rubber pedals.

But no one else was even harmed.

THE investigating officer, Flight Lieutenant Frank E Lynch, dated his report January 20, 1945.

He interviewed all six surviving crew members of KB793. They had all escaped with ease and had landed without harm - apart from one slightly sprained ankle - in a line along the A66 from Elton to Sadberge.

He interviewed all the officers from Middleton St George who had dashed to the scene, and he took evidence from Rolls Royce engineers, who had analysed the remains of the burnt-out engine.

In summing up, he wrote: "With regard to the pilot not abandoning the aircraft, there is no indication that he was jammed or caught in his position.

"His parachute harness was still present but apparently had not been touched.

"The Medical Officer declines to make any definite statement, but in his opinion the pilot was uninjured up until the time of impact."

In conclusion, he said a primary failure in the No 6 A piston crown had started the fire.

"Cause of the primary breaking is not known, but both piston and metal from filters are being examined by Rolls Royce Ltd," he wrote.

Flt Lt Lynch then turned from mechanical failure to human matters.

He wrote: "From the evidence given, it is considered that the pilot and crew in this emergency carried out their duties to the best of their ability.

"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."

As the squadron motto said, he stayed with the plane "to the very end".

THE townspeople immediately started the Darlington Gallant Airman Fund. They offered the £1,000 raised to McMullen's widow, Thelma, back in Canada. She refused it, saying Britain had sustained much more war damage, so it should be put to use there.

However, she was sent an ornate silver rosebowl. The rest of the money was used to endow two children's cots at the Memorial Hospital. In September 1945, McMullen's sister, Mae, attended a presentation ceremony at the hospital, and met the first children to occupy the cots: Roland Bradley, ten, of Barningham Street, Darlington, and Samuel Thompson, six, of Wood Street, Barnard Castle.

Lingfield Lane was re-named McMullen Road, and a memorial stone was erected on the crash site.

Then Darlington forgot. The stone became lost beneath undergrowth and the cots, complete with plaques, disappeared during a hospital reorganisation.

In 1985, Darlington remembered. McMullen's daughter Donna Mae visited for the 40th anniversary and learned the full story of her father's heroic death.

A new memorial stone was erected on McMullen Road, and, in 1995, on the 50th anniversary, a remembrance ceremony was held.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In the first of a series, Chris Lloyd tells of the heroic Canadian pilot who died on this day steering his stricken plane away from a North-East Town.

Today, the 60th anniversary, weeds are pushing through the bricks at the foot of the stone and no ceremony is planned.

Darlington is forgetting.

In 1945, at the dedication of the cots, Darlington mayor Jimmy Blumer, the same fellow who had written to Thelma, said: "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."

* With thanks to Geoff Hill and Dave Thompson.