LAIT logo P-51D 44-13593 - Fulwood, Preston

27th June 1944

Updated 16.07.2001

Burtie Orth portrait
Burtie Orth taken in 1943
Daughter + headstone
Burtie's Daughter

The loss of a P-51 Mustang fighter and the tragic death of its pilot over Preston in mid-1944 is probably one of the lesser-known local incidents of the Second World War. Yet this was the second such loss in identical circumstances in a matter of weeks and the potential consequences for the American and British Air forces were immense.

The first incident occurred on 12th June 1944 when P-51D Serial No. 44-13403 embedded itself in the Ribble mud close to BAD2 at Warton killing it's pilot, 2nd Lt. W.T. Clearwater. Detailed examination of the recovered wreckage showed that there had been catastrophic structural failure of the wing assembly. It was some two weeks later that another BAD2 test pilot, 2nd Lt. Burtie Orth, was making a similar test flight in P-51D Serial No. 44-13593 on the morning of 27th June 1944. Weather conditions were not ideal with frequent thunder showers and 7/10th cloud cover at 1400 feet, but there were clear areas and the pilot may well have flown over Preston in order to carry out his testing schedule in just such an area. Although the aircraft's movement were not observed prior to the crash, it is believed that Burtie would have adhered strictly to the limitations on aerobatics flying which had been placed following the crash two weeks earlier. Exactly what happened next will never be known, but as in the case of previous crash, the first indication to those on the ground was the scream of the engine running out of control. At approx. 9.00 am morning assembly was taking place at Fulwood and Cadley School, when the children's attention was diverted by the noise and many ran to the windows in time to glimpse the last moments of the aircraft, a memory that was to stay with them for the rest of their lives. It appeared to those watching that the pilot somehow had some partial control over the direction of the aircraft's descent and it "steered" away from the school and houses below. The stricken plane exploding on impact, on an area of farmland in the Cadley area of the town. Those first on the scene quickly realised that they could do nothing for the unfortunate pilot.

Crash site in 1944
Crash site of 44-13593 - 1944

At the time of the accident it was suggested that although there was a recognised weakness in the wing of the new P-51D, the actual failure of the structure could have been triggered by the Starboard main undercarriage leg inadvertently lowering into the slipstream at cruising speed and placing immense pressure on the wing spar. However examination of the official crash reports for both incidents clearly places the blame on a weakness in the front wing spar assembly and associated stressed skin structure between "Rib stations 75 to 91.5, i.e. the Gun Bay area. The report on Orth's aircraft does go on to suggest that failure of the retracting/locking system could be a contributory factor, but merely recommends further investigation.

For many years local enthusiasts believed that both these incidents occurred close to the site of BAD2 at Warton and one group actually went so far as to identify the crash site of an American fighter on the marshes at Freckleton as being that of P-51, 44-13593 and partially excavated the site! (See "Flypast" Nov. 1983 & Mar.1985) However a brief examination of the known details soon showed that this deduction was flawed and the site was actually that of a P-47, 42-8621. Our research began with an inspection of local papers close to the date of the accident, but they revealed little, though a small note about Preston school children sending flowers for the funeral of an American pilot put us on the right track. Following information appeals in the local press we soon had several witnesses to interview - mainly former pupils at the local school - which the aircraft had narrowly missed. Pinpointing the exact site proved a little harder - it had been well guarded and few of those interviewed had got near, also photos of the site obtained from the BAD2 Association clearly showed a substantial farm building in the background - which we failed to locate. Fortunately the present owner of the former farmhouse recalled demolishing the aforementioned building many years before and we were soon systematically searching a nearby field with a metal detector. Just days later the crash report arrived from Craig Fuller of AAIR, confirming the location beyond question.

Crash site 1998
Crash site of 44-13593 - 1998

Our excavation of the site took place, coincidentally, on 27th June 1998 and we knew from the start that little was likely to be left, though our trusty Forster Locator was giving a good signal! Considering the importance placed at the time on discovering the cause of these two tragic accidents, we were most surprised to discover the top section of the starboard undercarriage leg. This comprised of the complete pivot casting from the top of the leg encased in the corroded remains of the magnesium pivot block, mounted on a section of the front wing spar and including the undercarriage locking mechanism. The position of the casting in the block clearly showed that the leg had in fact been in the fully retracted position at the time the remainder of the leg had been torn off. The force of the wing breaking away, with the wheel presumably held fast in the wheel well, had exerted immense pressure on the four bolts holding the leg into the pivot casting collar and these had sheared allowing the wing to break completely away and the heavy undercarriage leg to fall free. The latter falling in nearby Mill Lane according to one witness interviewed. Other finds included; the remains of three instruments, radio tuner control, spare lamp-bulb locker cover, drop tank release handle, an electric motor and many very small fragments, such as a locking cone from the pilot's parachute pack. As predicted the finds petered out at less than one meter in depth and the rest of the day was spent carefully checking through the spoil for missed items and reinstating the site just as we found it.

Burtie's Pilot's Wings
Burtie's silver wings

Burtie Orth was a popular figure at Warton and his death was a severe blow to morale, especially in light of the fact that he had recently been married to a local girl from Blackpool and doubly so as his wife had apparently given him the good news that she was expecting their child the very day that he died. He is buried in the American Military Cemetery, Madingly Road, Coton, Cambridgeshire, Plot Ref. F. Row No. 1 grave 95. The parts excavated by LAIT were displayed at the Harris Central Library in October 1998, together with personal mementoes of this brave pilot loaned by his daughter. Recently a more permanent memorial has been unveiled to Burtie at the local school - Fulwood & Cadley County Primary School - in the form of a plaque. A dedication ceremony was held at the school on 25th June 1999 & the plaque was presented by a representative of British Aerospace North West Heritage Group, who funded it. It is to be placed in the main entrance corridor of the school where it will be seen by everyone entering the main building. The ceremony took place in the same hall where the pupils at the time of the crash witnessed the dramatic events in 1944 and was attended by most of those former pupils we had managed to track down, as well as Burtie's widow & daughter. The Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team assisted throughout the planning of this memorial and also represented was the BAD 2 Veterans association, the local RAFA & the local British Legion.

Memorial plaque presentation
Presentation of memorial Plaque 25th June 1999

The plaque takes pride of place in the school


Acknowledgements:

Pat Holt, BAD2 Association, George Gosney (1944 photo), Russell. Brown, Craig.Fuller (AAIR), Stuart A.Clewlow (photo).

 

Send Email Back to Home Page

This page & all articles on this site Copyright Nick Wotherspoon 2000