Today is the 60th anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, the tragic plane crash which claimed 23 lives, including eight members of the famed ‘Busby Babes’ Manchester United squad.
The team was returning from playing Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia, where a 3-3 away draw saw United progress to the semi-finals stage of the European Cup.
As fans celebrated at home, the team began their journey back to the UK, accompanied by manager Sir Matt Busby, other coaching and support staff and key members of the British footballing press. They were aboard a BEA (British European Airways) twin-engined Airspeed Ambassador 2 aircraft carrying 38 passengers and six crew.
The plane, which had taken the team and contingent out to Belgrade three days previously, began the return journey on Thursday by flying from the Yugoslav capital to Munich, where it needed to refuel for the remainder of the journey.
It was given clearance for take-off just after 2-30pm, but that attempt and another three minutes later were both abandoned due to a problem with the engines over-accelerating, due to the fuel mixture being too rich. The passengers then disembarked back to the airport lounge while the problem was sorted out, but by then it had started to snow heavily and several assumed they would be staying overnight in Munich.
In the meantime, the Captain and Co-Pilot, after seeking advice by radio, agreed that opening the plane’s throttle more slowly would solve the problem. It would mean a longer take-off run, but Munich’s runway was long enough to accommodate it. After 15 minutes the passengers were brought back on board and just after 3pm the third take-off attempt began.
Unfortunately, melting snow had created slush on the runway. It slowed the plane which could not reach the minimum take-off speed, actually slowing when it encountered heavier slush further along the runway. Unable to get airborne, it skidded off the end of the runway and ploughed through the airport’s boundary fence and across a road before its left wing struck a house and was ripped away.
The cockpit then struck a tree and the right side of the fuselage hit a wooden shed containing a truck loaded with tyres and fuel, which burst into flames. Twenty people on board the plane died in the crash – another three would die later from their injuries, including the Co-Pilot. The Captain managed to get out then, seeing flames under the fuel-filled right wing, went back for two hand-held fire extinguishers.
Other survivors began finding ways out, including injured goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who rescued several others, as emergency workers began arriving on the scene. Seven of the Manchester United players – Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan – died in the crash, while teammate Duncan Edwards died in hospital from his injuries 15 days later.
Several others were seriously injured, including Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower, who would never play again. Manager Matt Busby would also spend two months in hospital and was twice read his Last Rites. Eight journalists from national and Manchester newspapers also perished, together with United’s club secretary, trainer and chief coach, a travel agent and racecourse owner Willie Satinoff, who was a close friend of Matt Busby.
Best known of the 21 survivors was midfielder Bobby Charlton, who would go on to play in England’s World Cup winning squad in 1966 and be knighted in 1994. Initially the crash was blamed on the Captain amid claims he had failed to de-ice the aircraft wings before take-off, despite several witnesses saying there had been no ice there. Only after a lengthy investigation was the real cause pinpointed as the build-up of slush on the runway, causing the aircraft to lose take-off speed. It would be 10 years before the Captain was formally cleared of any blame by German investigators.
The impact on Manchester United was massive and there were initially fears the club would fold. Incredibly, a threadbare squad of reserves and replacements battled on to complete the season and even reached the final of the FA Cup, where they were beaten by Bolton Wanderers. A decade later, a rebuilt United would become the first English club to win the European Cup
Today it is one of the world’s most successful football clubs, but the Munich Air Disaster remains the darkest day in the club’s long and illustrious history.