The heroic airman who saved a teenage cadet's life in a Yorkshire plane crash

An incredible act of heroism took place in the skies above North Yorkshire in the summer of 1951.

A World War Two veteran was awarded the George Cross after sacrificing his own life to save a 16-year-old boy during an air training exercise that went disastrously wrong.

In August 1951, a group of teenage air cadets from a squadron in Middlesbrough were invited to visit RAF Leeming, near Northallerton, as part of their summer camp.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

At the time, crews at the base were training in the use of interception radar to detect bombers. They were conducting an exercise involving two aircraft, a Martinet and a Wellington bomber. The two planes would take off simultaneously and radar operators would guide them towards each other to practice their skills. Trainee navigators aboard the Wellington were honing their interception abilities, and the boys were to be taken up in both aircraft in turns.

One cadet joined the pilot in the Martinet for the pass that would prove fatal, and six airmen, most of them training as navigators, took off in the Wellington, with 16-year-old Derek Coates beside them.

Suddenly, things went wrong when cloud appeared on what had been a clear day, and the two aircraft flew too close to each other. The Martinet appeared from the cloud cover, and its wing struck the Wellington. The smaller plane went into a dive immediately and crashed, killing both the pilot and the boy.

The Wellington went into a spin and began to break up in mid-air. Sitting beside Derek in the rear of the plane was Flight Lieutenant John Quinton, 30, who had been a distinguished navigator with night fighter crews in World War Two before leaving the RAF. He was at Leeming because he had decided to re-enter the force on a short-service commission, and had to undergo a period of refresher training.

Most of the parachutes stowed in the aircraft were out of reach, and Quinton could only see one. Grabbing it, he attached it to Derek's harness and showed the boy how to operate the ripcord, before helping him out of a hole that had appeared in the disintegrating tail section. Derek parachuted clear and survived the accident. The Wellington crashed in a field near Catterick and those who remained on board were killed.

Derek Coates was interviewed by crash investigators and told the story of how Quinton had saved his life, knowing that his own death was guaranteed if he sacrificed the only parachute available. He was awarded a posthumous George Cross two months after the crash, and was buried at St John the Baptist Church in Leeming.

His widow, Margaret, received the medal in the first investiture ceremony of the Queen's reign.

The citation read: 'Such an act of heroism and humanity ranks with the very highest traditions of the Royal Air Force, besides establishing him as a very gallant and courageous officer, who, by his action, displayed the most conspicuous heroism.'

In 2011, John's son Roger unveiled the Quinton Block at RAF Leeming in honour of his father.