85th birthday treat ends in horror as plane bursts into flames

East Anglian air ambulnace attends the scene of the crash in the village of Topcroft in Norfolk in 2

East Anglian air ambulnace attends the scene of the crash in the village of Topcroft in Norfolk in 2016 (Picture: Rob Colman/Archant) - Credit: Archant

A woman broke down in tears as she described the moment a vintage plane came crashing down towards her near Bungay.

Cheryl Griffiths said the wreckage of the P-51 D Mustang stopped just 50ft in front of her after hitting a tree at Hardwick Airfield on October 2, 2016.

Benjamin Marshall, 84, of Willoughby Waterleys, Leicestershire, who was a passenger in the two-seater aircraft, died in the crash.

The Mustang's pilot and owner, Maurice Hammond, suffered a broken neck, ribs and shoulder, but survived.

Mr Marshall's inquest in Norwich heard this morning how the retired farmer had met the pilot at Topcroft Farm airstrip for a birthday flight experience.

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But as the plane came into land, witnesses described seeing it being blown over to the left of the airstrip.

Miss Griffiths, who was walking her dogs on a track leading to airfield at the time, said she heard the Mustang's engine 'really roar'.

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She said: 'I thought 'wow, I am in the right place to see the whole take off'.

'The engine was roaring but I surprised it was not climbing.

'It started to turn so it was coming straight towards me and I was still thinking 'this is fantastic' and 'it's going to come straight over my head'.

She said the Mustang was flying directly at her and was around 10 to 15ft off the ground.

'Just as it got to the tree, the left wing dipped really violently,' Miss Griffiths said.

'If you were to look at a clock face I would say the wings were pointing at 10 to 4pm or five to 5pm.'

She said after the plane hit a tree in front of her there was a 'huge fireball'.

'Because the left wing had hit the heaviest part of the tree it spun the plane and it carried on bouncing in my direction.'

She said people ran over to the crash site and she was asked to grab cutting utensils to help those inside the aircraft.

Mr Marshall's son, Robert, caught the moment of the landing on cam recorder.

He said his father had an interest in military aircraft, and that the flight experience was purchased for his 85th birthday.

The flight was initially due to take place on October 1, but bad weather meant it was postponed until the following day.

Pilot Mr Hammond, said he had no memory of what happened on the day.

In a written statement he said he spent five weeks and two days in hospital with a broken neck, ribs and shoulder, as well burns.

'I have no idea what went wrong on the day because I have no memory,' Mr Hammond said.

But he added he probably would have done 'everything possible' to avoid crashing.

The inquest heard how Mr Hammond restored the Mustang after purchasing it in 1997. He flew it for the first time in July 2001.

In a written statement, read out during the inquest, he said he obtained his private pilot's licence in 1989 and has flown around 2,000 hours since then.

He said he had spent between 800 to 1,000 hours in the Mustang, adding he was 'probably' the second-highest houred Mustang pilot in the country.

The inquest heard how Mr Hammond, who owns four other aircraft, would take people for flights out.

Mr Hammond's daughter, Leah Young, said she had been in a half-track military vehicle when the plane came into land.

In a written statement, she said: 'I knew something was not right. It looked as though the Mustang was going around for another landing.'

She said her dad was 'meticulous' with his checks on the aircraft.

The inquest continues this afternoon.

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