Almost exactly 50 years ago, people in one Lancashire village had an amazing escape when a jet fighter crashed in the heart of the community. John Grimbaldeston reports.
September 4, 1968 is a special day in the memory of Pilling villagers; it’s the day when their own little miracle occurred.
An English Electric Lightning F53 fighter, number 53-690, had taken off, probably from Warton though one account suggests Samlesbury, and soon the pilot reported he was in difficulties.
The aircraft was still in the testing stage, its first flight had only been on August 20, and it was destined ultimately for sale to Saudi Arabia.
It was accompanied in the skies for this early flight by another Lightning flown by Chief Test Pilot Jimmy Dell.
A fire had started at 400 feet and, after seeking advice from ground control, the pilot, John Cockburn, struggled to get the plane to 4,000 feet and then aimed it for Morecambe Bay where he could ditch it safely without any threat to human life.
Unfortunately he was unable to generate sufficient power to get that far and had to ditch in the mostly open fields of Pilling, and trust to luck as to the threat to life, leaving it as long as he dared before ejecting.
People for miles around heard the tremendous explosion as the jet crashed into the centre of Pilling, coming down behind a pair of semi-detached cottages and hitting a greenhouse and outbuildings.
One told the Lancashire Evening Post it sounded, “like a clap of thunder”.
Mr Cockburn – who was 30 years old at the time of the accident – landed safely with a sore neck a couple of miles from his plane, and excited but sympathetic locals drove him back to the scene of the crash.
The plane exploded into a garden and chicken cabin and greenhouse on Bradshaw Lane. Flying debris damaged a few buildings, but basically it was a day for wondering what might have been and counting blessings.
One witness described, “bits of burning fuel and bits of plane scattered around the area.”
Another onlooker, Harvey Morley, said: “I heard two bangs and then the next thing this plane came out of some low cloud, absolutely vertically and plunged straight into the ground.”
Meanwhile, Mr Dell observed Cockburn landing safely and radioed in to report the incident before returning to Warton.
Many years later, Mr Cockburn told the Lancashire Evening Post: “It was a production aeroplane and it just had a fire in the back. I pulled the handle and luckily everything worked.”
The force of the impact hurled fragments over a wide area and the largest, an undercarriage unit, landed in the nearby yard of a haulage firm, again damaging outbuildings and striking the wall of the office.
Near misses included Pilling Auction Mart with more than 100 farmers and many animals, 75 children and several staff at St Williams RC primary school, the Elletson Arms pub and the workshop and garage belonging to Peter Hedges.
Even one of the two injured parties could consider herself lucky: Margaret Lawrenson’s kitchen at Hollybank was blown in while she was by the kettle, the contents of the kettle showered over her, but thankfully the water was cold and her injuries were limited to shock, a cut arm and a sore shoulder.
Her husband Bill Lawrenson was in his garage when the force of the explosion hurled him off his feet and wrecked the garage.
Both were treated in hospital for shock and Dr Andrew Taylor said: “They were very lucky. The plane only just missed their house.”
Agricultural engineer Kenneth J White said:
“Everybody in the district seems to have heard the crash. Within minutes people in cars and on bicycles were driving and riding along the lanes all rushing to the scene of the accident. Police had to divert the traffic as the crowds gathered. “
The crater left by the Lightning’s impact was estimated to be between 15 and 35 feet deep and 30 yards across. It, however, proved too unstable to excavate when the recovery crew arrived to salvage the remains of the fighter.
The Ministry of Defence and the British Aircraft Corporation took several weeks to clear the wreckage, and a lot longer to settle any claims for compensation, as cash-conscious Pillingers were not slow to complain.
Bits of the plane are still scattered around the village as inhabitants gathered reminders of the day that their village was nearly added to the sad roll of British disasters.
Within a few days of the crash, John Cockburn was back in the cockpit displaying another Lightning at Farnborough Airshow.
He was an interesting character. In his youth he was a keen amateur rider, he played cricket and golf to a decent standard, and first class rugby for Fylde, and his flying career was one of distinction.
Before flying Lightnings he had flown Vampires, Meteors and Canberras, and went on to fly Tornados and Buccaneers.
He and his co-pilot had another lucky escape, in 1976 this time in a Tornado, when a gun bay door blew off in a prototype, smashed the pilots’ canopy, injuring both pilots and damaging an engine. They managed to land the limping plane back at Warton.
He retired from flying in 1979, but continued to work for BAE until 2007: he was awarded the OBE in 2002.
He died in April 2017 in Berwickshire in his native Scotland.