School marks 78 years since RAF pilot swerved plane to save children
- Credit: Tom Barens
A pensioner says a heroic RAF pilot "changed the course of history” 78 years ago when he swerved away from a Hornchurch school during a crash landing and saved 1,000 lives.
Today (March 24), Sanders School - which is to be called Sanders Draper School once again from September - paid homage to a pilot of the same name who saved staff and pupils during the Second World War by steering his plane away from its classrooms when plummeting to the ground.
Current headteacher Stuart Brooks says the legacy of Sanders Draper’s heroic actions remains an inspiration to pupils today and laid a wreath at the hero's grave at St Andrew's Church, Hornchurch this morning.
Tom Fitch was aged 13 when American pilot Raimund Sanders Draper's plane developed a catastrophic engine failure in the sky over what was then Suttons Senior School on March 24, 1943.
Instead of ejecting, the pilot - who was a volunteer in the Royal Air Force - steered his Spitfire away from the Hornchurch school and crash landed in the playing field instead.
He had taken off from a nearby airfield, but the plane quickly developed a problem and completely cut out at an altitude of 200 feet.
The 29-year-old died in the crash, but 1,000 children who watched terrified from their classrooms were unharmed. In 1973, the school was renamed Sanders Draper after his heroic actions.
Speaking from his home in Billericay, Tom, 91 - who now has two children, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren - said: "We heard this buzzing, whirring sound and then the teacher shouted for us all to get down.
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“Then there was an almighty crash. There was no holding us back then, we all ran outside and saw the devastation. The aircraft was completely upside down.
"It's hard to describe. If the plane had hit the school it would have been absolutely catastrophic.
"I've lived a full life and had a wonderful family. Sanders Draper's decision that day changed the course of history.
“He gave his life to save others and we are all so grateful for that. It was a courageous and heroic act."
Mr Brooks added: "This was a true act of bravery and the heroic actions of Raimund Sanders Draper saved the students in the building, such as Tom.
“He allowed the students and staff to go on and live a full life. He continues to inspire future generations, showing clearly that everyone can be a hero. As he showed, it is about making brave decisions, thinking of others and doing what is needed.
“He is a true inspiration to the students, staff and local community. I am delighted that in September the school will rightly revert back to being called Sanders Draper and we will continue to pay our respects for the ultimate sacrifice he made.”