Pilot survived US jet crash in Gorleston harbour
- Credit: Archant
In the days of our great autumn herring fishery, folk from far and wide were drawn to our quaysides to watch the drifters sail in and out and to savour the hectic activity as catches were cranned out at the Fishwharf.
Caister resident Hilda Cuffley was no exception so one day, when she took her sons Peter and David to visit their grandmother in Peggotty Road, Great Yarmouth, they went along the riverside, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the herring season.
But within a split second, that leisurely family stroll turned into a dramatic moment they will never forget when a US Air Force F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter plunged into the harbour!
The incident a half-century ago, on Tuesday, October 27, 1964, was recalled briefly in this column a few weeks ago during a round-up of some of the notable events of that year, and it triggered one of David’s earliest pre-school memories. But while he remembers only the grey streak of the plane coming down and a ball of flame, brother Peter - who was eight at the time - has more vivid memories.
Peter recalls: “It was school half-term and we were on the way to visit my grandmother, Hilda King, who lived in Peggotty Road.
“On the way, Mum took us along the quay at Yarmouth and we walked as far as the Fishwharf to look at the fishing boats. Just before the plane went down, one of the boats had come in past the very same spot - had it been just a few moments later, the plane might have clipped its mast.
“Suddenly the jet came in from the east, over the Birds Eye factory, and went into a dive and ploughed into the mudflats on the opposite bank and burst into flames.”
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The pilot, Capt James Chestnut, based at Lakenheath in Suffolk, had safely ejected after two mid-air explosions caused his controls to freeze over the North Sea, but eye-witnesses were unaware he had landed safely near Lawn Avenue in Yarmouth.
“Immediately we thought about what must have happened to the poor guy stuck in the plane, but we didn’t realise he had already ejected,” said Peter, who still lives in Caister and works at the API Technologies factory on the South Denes, just a stone’s throw from the spot where he witnessed the crash.
“It was only when we saw the news later in the day that we realised the pilot was safe. It was reported that he had tried to point the jet out to sea before he baled out, but it came inland. There was damage to the houses and boats along the river from the wreckage, but it was a miracle nobody was killed or injured.
“I can remember people coming out on the flat roof at Birds Eye to see what had happened.
“I had a friend in Gorleston who told me he and his mates picked up debris in the High Street. He said police came round to the schools to check if anyone had collected any souvenirs!”
Years later brother David, a former Eastern Daily Press and Evening News sports writer and colleague of mine, had a close-up look at a Super Sabre jet – happily intact - when taking his own children to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford.
“The American Air Museum at Duxford includes a Super Sabre on display and seeing it gave me a bit of a shiver, even after all those years,” he tells me. “Then, seeing the reports of an F-15 coming down in Lincolnshire a couple of weeks ago reminded me of it all.”
Peter and David’s mother, Hilda, is now 84 and their father is 88. From the age of 14, Hilda sang in the choir at the Deneside Methodist Central Hall (now Christchurch) for 57 years. The Cuffleys were married there in 1955, celebrating their 59th wedding anniversary in September.
Now, but not then, you can marry in Yarmouth Town Hall, a building which – as I mentioned a fortnight ago - had been open for only five years when in 1887 it was a victim of severe subsidence and had to be underpinned and stabilised, an unexpected huge expense.
Regular correspondent Trevor Nicholls, Yarmouth’s retired registrar, is fascinated by Town Hall’s exterior of red sandstone quarried at the Cumbrian village of St Bees and delivered here by rail or sea.
“At street level, the sandstone is laid in heavily rough-hewn rusticated bands, giving the impression of great strength,” Trevor writes. “Higher up, the bands are vermiculated – an ornamentation giving the appearance of having been made by the action of worms – devices repeated half a century later in the annexe, latterly Trafalgar House, now being converted into flats.”
I cannot begin to count the times I have passed the Town Hall, or gazed at it while waiting for a bus on Hall Quay, but I have never noticed the differing appearance of the sandstone on two levels. So it was wasted on me, and perhaps I am not alone.
Sounds like a pointless extra charge imposed on the hapless ratepayers in the 1880s!
Trevor says there were objections to the building of the town hall on grounds of cost and design, and a noted architectural historian thought it compared poorly with the grand town halls erected in northern England at the time.
In September I featured the men’s outfitting shop of Louis Durrant in Englands Lane, Gorleston, where for years he stubbornly refused to acknowledge the 1971 arrival of decimalisation but persisted in trading in £sd equivalents. His premises are now occupied by lst Flooring, I wrote, but reader Derek Cook, of Middlestone Close, Gorleston, points out that this business is in one half of the shop, the other housing Nancy Durrant’s dog-grooming parlour, Mucky Pups, for 30 years.
Derek adds: “It is one of the area’s most popular ‘dog’ shops; about 100 dogs a week x 30 years = 150,000 cuttings and washings. Many of the dogs are as big as Nancy!”