Armstrong Whitworth Whitley LA798 crash at Sydenham Park, Belfast

On 21st January 1943, an R.A.F. plane crashed in the residential heart of East Belfast coming down in the back garden of No. 24 Sydenham Park.

On 21st January 1943, residents in Sydenham Park in East Belfast showed great bravery in rescuing a Pilot and another crew member from their wrecked plane. Armstrong Whitworth Whitley LA798 experienced difficulties and appeared to lose power on a flight over the east of the city.

The 37-year-old American Pilot and his Flight Engineer took off from Newtownards Airfield on the day of the crash. Both crew members were with No. 8 Ferry Pilots Pool, Air Transport Auxiliary based at Sydenham Airfield in East Belfast. Their destination was a return to R.A.F. No. 23 Maintenance Unit at R.A.F. Aldergrove, Co. Antrim. When over the city of Belfast, the crew noticed the plane running low on fuel. Perhaps they had missed checks or refuelling at the Co. Down airfield. Over the Upper Newtownards Road, the engines failed.

Locals watched as the plane almost came down on the football pitch at Wilgar Park, home of Dundela Football Club. The Pilot gained a little power and presumably bound for Sydenham Airfield, limped over the Strand Cinema with only 10 feet to spare. Dipping again, the plane struck trees near Park Avenue, losing part of a wing before continuing on towards the houses of Sydenham Park.

The quick-thinking Pilot First Officer Lionel Duane Kay of Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.A. brought the plane down into a clump of trees that still stand at the bottom of the gardens of the houses. The damaged plane swung around, losing a second wing, before pancaking into the rear garden of No. 24. owned by fitter Jack McGinnis (sometimes John McGuinness). The tail stopped only a few feet short of the dining room window.

Mrs. McGinnis was preparing for a shopping trip. She was on her way out the front door of the house when she smelt smoke. At first, she paid little attention until a crash shook the house.

I realised it must be a plane. And, on going out and looking down the side of the house, I saw the plane lying in the garden. There did not seem to be any men about and although I screamed for assistance, it seemed like hours before anyone came – though only seconds elapsed.

Belfast Telegraph – 22nd January 1943.

Three locals rushed to the scene; John Rodie (boilermaker of 14 Sydenham Park), Robert Johnston (fitter of 16 Sydenham Park), and an unknown man. They braved the flames to pull the Pilot from the cockpit, where he lay trapped with a broken leg and head, and chest injuries. The unnamed rescuer had been chopping wood in the garden next door and made use of a hatchet to break through the fuselage.

Mrs. William T. Hudd, wife of a boot repairer, of 25 Sydenham Park watched from her bedroom window. She ducked as she witnessed the plane come towards her like a dark cloud.

Then I heard an awful noise and on looking out, saw smoke coming from the garden of the house opposite. I knew there had been an accident, and ran out onto the street shouting for help.

Belfast Telegraph – 22nd January 1943.

Eventually, Mrs. McGinnis spotted the crew members.

I ran to the back of the house and discovered one of the crew had crawled into the next garden. He was lying on his mouth and nose. The Pilot was trapped in the cockpit, and I was considering whether I should brave the flames to get him loose when assistance arrived. Next, I filled a bath with water and brought it out, and threw it over the still-burning part of the plane.

I had a very lucky escape, and am just wondering what my husband will think of it when he gets home and finds a plane in the garden.

Belfast Telegraph – 22nd January 1943.

Mrs. Jack McGinnis

British newspaper Archive Photo: Mrs. Jack McGinnis of 24 Sydenham Park, Belfast with the hatchet used to rescue the trapped Pilot following the R.A.F. plane crash in her back garden on 21st January 1943. Copyright Belfast News-Letter on Saturday 23rd January 1943.

Laurence Stewart, a Motorcycle Despatch Rider with the British Army from Laurencetown, Co. Down lived in Sydenham Gardens, Belfast at the time of the incident. He noted:

It was mid-morning and I was washing my motorbike when I became aware of a strange whining noise, a bit like wind rushing through the trees. I looked up and saw a twin-engined aircraft just above the Strand Cinema beyond Park Avenue coming straight towards me. Just then, a wing hit trees at Park Avenue which caused the aircraft to turn through 180 degrees and stop dead in the air. It then dropped out of sight and I heard a ‘crump’ as it fell into the back garden of No. 24 Sydenham Park. I rushed to the house in question to find that Pioneer Corps soldiers who were billeted nearby had got there first and were pulling one of the pilots from the wreckage. The pilot was uninjured but his companion had been thrown through the windscreen into an adjoining garden, suffering severe lacerations. There was no one else on board and no fire.

Pilot Rescued

Among those involved in the Pilot’s rescue was Fitter Robert Johnston. His wife was working at a downstairs window when she saw the plane coming straight towards her. She ran upstairs and wakened her husband who was sleeping after working a night shift. He spoke to reporters from the Belfast Telegraph:

I had been in bed as I was on night duty. I jumped up, pulled on some clothes, and rushed out and shouted a warning to Mr. Rodie, who had climbed on top of the burning fuselage, to beware of the tank exploding. Then I climbed up, but we could not burst open the cockpit roof.

I jumped down on the other side and found a young man who had cut his way with a hatchet through the intervening hedge, using the hatchet to cut a hole in the fuselage. The smoke and flames were blinding, but we managed to make an opening, and the three of us, assisted by two soldiers, and an R.A.F. man who had struggled through the hedge, got the trapped Pilot out, and we carried him to a house opposite, away from the smoke. I got a board to support his leg. His first words to me were “Is my mate alright?” We told him he was.

Belfast Telegraph – 22nd January 1943.

The rescue party and injured Pilot had just reached a safe distance when the first petrol tank exploded. The Observer found himself in the next-door neighbour’s garden, thrown clear before the plane hit the garden. He sustained broken legs as a result of the incident.

Firefighters soon brought the blaze under control and both the Pilot and Observer recovered in a nearby R.A.F. Hospital. By Saturday 23rd January 1943, the Belfast News-Letter reported on both as:

Satisfactory: recovering from the effect of their injuries.

First Officer Lionel Duane Kay was an experienced Pilot having flown from a young age. During the 1920s, he flew with the U.S. Air Mail transcontinental service, as well as “barnstorming”, and taking part in Flying Circuses. He came to the United Kingdom in 1940 with more than 10,000 flying hours logged. The crash of Armstrong Whitworth Whitley LA798 was his 3rd in service and invalided the American until November 1943.

His Flight Engineer on the fateful flight was John Frederick Openshaw, a former inspector with the Bristol manufacturing firm. He had joined the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1942 and did not return to service until November 1944 following the East Belfast crash.

Thank you to historian Paul Allonby of Derbyshire, England for bringing this story to our attention, and to Ernie Cromie of the Ulster Aviation Society for his invaluable research and assistance.