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Gloster Meteor jet fighters on service with the RAAF in Korea.

Fatal Meteor jet crash at Williamtown, NSW, 1957

Recently, while I was visiting old acquaintances Doug and Peggy Paton, Doug mentioned a terrible plane crash he said he witnessed while he was a member of the Royal Australian Air Force, working at Williamtown fighter base north of Newcastle. Doug said the plane crashed while landing at the base, and he feared at one point that it might have smashed into the building where he was working. It was around meal time, he said, and there were few people around.

Doug Paton in his RAAF uniform in the 1950s.

He showed me some photos he said had taken of the crash and told me he believed it was a Sabre jet.

Former pilot John Laming – a very helpful consultant on such matters – said he recalled the smash, but it was not a Sabre. It was a dual version of a Gloster Meteor Mk 7. John had known the pilot, Terry Withington of Stockton, and he said there was also a doctor aboard.

One of Doug’s photos of the crash of Meteor A77-706.

John wrote: “The dual Meteor was turning back for landing when the pilot lost control and crashed.  The reason for the loss of control was the pilot forgot to retract the dive brakes before lowering the wheels. There were many similar crashes on Meteor Mk 7’s in the RAF in UK, the reason being the dive brakes when extended could cause a change of airflow over the tail surfaces – especially if the aircraft was skidding slightly.  This would cause the aircraft to roll on to its back. At low altitude as in the circuit pattern, there was no room for the pilot to recover and pull out.”

Another of Doug’s crash photos.

Knowing the crashed plane was a Meteor helped. I did a Trove search and found an article in The Canberra Times of Tuesday, April 30, 1957. The article stated that on the previous day “a brilliant doctor and parachutist was one of two Air Force officers who were killed instantly when their Meteor jet aircraft crashed at Williamtown RAAF station.”

Remains of the smashed Gloster Meteor jet at Williamtown RAAF base. Photo by Doug Paton.

“The dead officers were Squadron Leader William E. Downey, married, medical officer, of Casterton, Western Victoria, and Flt Lt Terence J. Withington, 25, married, of Stockton, NSW. S/Ldr Downey was a parachuting enthusiast with 80 jumps to his credit. He formed and trained a team of RAAF medical orderlies, who became parachutists qualified to jump in emergency to give aid to the victims of plane crashes or bush fires. Flt Lt Withington was born in Sydney and did operational service with No. 77 fighter squadron in Korea.”

A RAAF spokesman was quoted as saying that the twin-seater version of the Meteor jet in which the officers were flying was practising normal landings at the time of the crash. The Meteor nosed into the end of the main landing field and burned.

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