This Day in History Feb. 6: The Munich Air Disaster (1958)

The Munich Air Disaster (1958)

The Munich air disaster occurred on 6 February 1958 when British European Airways Flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem Airport, West Germany. On the plane was the Manchester United footballteam, nicknamed the “Busby Babes”, along with supporters and journalists.[1] Twenty of the 44 on the aircraft died at the scene. The injured, some unconscious, were taken to the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich where three more died, resulting in 23 fatalities with 21 survivors.

The team was returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, having eliminated Red Star Belgrade to advance to the semi-finals of the competition. The flight stopped to refuel in Munich because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was beyond the “Elizabethan”-class Airspeed Ambassador’s range. After refuelling, pilots James Thain and Kenneth Raymenttwice abandoned take-off because of boost surging in the left engine. Fearing they would get too far behind schedule, Captain Thain rejected an overnight stay in Munich in favour of a third take-off attempt. By then, snow was falling, causing a layer of slush to form at the end of the runway. After the aircraft hit the slush, it ploughed through a fence beyond the end of the runway and the left wing was torn off after hitting a house. Fearing the aircraft might explode, Thain began evacuating passengers while Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg helped pull survivors from the wreckage.

An investigation by West German airport authorities originally blamed Thain, saying he did not de-ice the aircraft’s wings, despite eyewitness statements to the contrary. It was later established that the crash was caused by the slush on the runway, which slowed the plane too much to take off. Thain was cleared in 1968, ten years after the incident.

Manchester United were trying to become the third club to win three successive English league titles; they were six points behind League leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers with 14 games to go. They also held the Charity Shield and had just advanced into their second successive European Cup semi-finals. The team had not been beaten for 11 matches. The crash not only derailed their title ambitions that year but also virtually destroyed the nucleus of what promised to be one of the greatest generations of players in English football history. It took 10 years for the club to recover, with Busby rebuilding the team and winning the European Cup in 1968 with a new generation of “Babes”.

Background

In April 1955, UEFA established the European Cup, a football competition for the champion clubs of UEFA-affiliated nations, to begin in the 1955–56 season;[2] however, the English league winners, Chelsea, were denied entry by the Football League’s secretary, Alan Hardaker, who believed not participating was best for English football.[3] The following season, the English league was won by Manchester United, managed by Matt Busby. The Football League again denied their champions entry, but Busby and his chairman, Harold Hardman, with the help of the Football Association’s chairman Stanley Rous, defied the league and United became the first English team to play in Europe.[4]

The team – known as the “Busby Babes” for their youth – reached the semi-finals, beaten there by the eventual winners, Real Madrid. Winning the First Division title again that season meant qualification for the 1957–58 tournament, and their cup run in 1956–57 meant they were one of the favourites to win. Domestic league matches were on Saturdays and European matches midweek, so, although air travel was risky, it was the only choice if United were to fulfil their league fixtures,[5] which they would have to do if they were to avoid proving Alan Hardaker right.[4]

After overcoming Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague in the preliminary and first round respectively, United were drawn with Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia for the quarter-finals. After beating them 2–1 at Old Trafford on 14 January 1958, the club was to travel to Yugoslavia for the return leg on 5 February. On the way back from Prague in the previous round, fog over England prevented the team from flying back to Manchester, so they flew to Amsterdam before taking the ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwichand then the train to Manchester. The trip took its toll on the players and they drew 3–3 with Birmingham City at St Andrew’s three days later.[6]

Eager not to miss Football League fixtures, and not to have a difficult trip again, the club chartered a British European Airways plane from Manchester to Belgrade for the away leg against Red Star.[7] The match was drawn 3–3 but it was enough to send United to the semi-finals.[8] The takeoff from Belgrade was delayed for an hour after outside rightJohnny Berry lost his passport,[9] and the plane landed in Munich for refuelling at 13:15 GMT.[10][11]

Aircraft and crew

The aircraft was a six-year-old Airspeed Ambassador 2, built in 1952 and delivered to BEA the same year.[12]

The pilot, Captain James Thain, was a former RAF flight lieutenant. Originally a sergeant (later a warrant officer), he was given an emergency commission in the RAF as an acting pilot officer on probation in April 1944,[13] and promoted to pilot officer on probation in September that year.[14] He was promoted to flight lieutenant in May 1948,[15] and received a permanent commission in the same rank in 1952.[16] He retired from the RAF to join BEA.

The co-pilot, Captain Kenneth Rayment, was also a former RAF flight lieutenant and a Second World War flying ace. After joining the RAF in 1940, he was promoted to sergeant in September 1941.[17] He was commissioned as a war substantive pilot officer a year later,[18] and promoted to war substantive flying officer in May 1943.[19] He shot down five German fighters, one Italian plane and a V-1 flying bomb. He was awarded the DFC in July 1943,[20] and promoted to flight lieutenant in September 1943.[21] After leaving the RAF in 1945, he joined BOAC in Cairo, before joining BEA in 1947. He had had experience with Vikings, Dakotas and the Ambassador “Elizabethan” class.[22]

Crash

Thain had flown the “Elizabethan”-class Airspeed Ambassador (registration G-ALZU) to Belgrade but handed the controls to Rayment for the return.[23] At 14:19 GMT, the control tower at Munich was told the plane was ready to take off and gave clearance for take-off, expiring at 14:31.[24] Rayment abandoned the take-off after Thain noticed the port boost pressure gauge fluctuating as the plane reached full power and the engine sounded odd while accelerating.[25] A second attempt was made three minutes later, but called off 40 seconds into the attempt[26] because the engines were running on an over-rich mixture, causing them to over-accelerate, a common problem for the “Elizabethan”.[25] After the second failure, passengers retreated to the airport lounge.[27] By then, it had started to snow heavily, and it looked unlikely that the plane would be making the return journey that day. Manchester United’s Duncan Edwards sent a telegram to his landlady in Manchester. It read: “All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan.”[28]

Thain told the station engineer, Bill Black, about the problem with the boost surging in the port engine, and Black suggested that since opening the throttle more slowly had not worked, the only option was to hold the plane overnight for retuning. Thain was anxious to stay on schedule and suggested opening the throttle even more slowly would suffice. This would mean that the plane would not achieve take-off velocity until further down the runway, but with the runway almost 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) long, he believed this would not be a problem. The passengers were called back to the plane 15 minutes after leaving it.[29]

A few of the players were not confident fliers, particularly Liam Whelan, who said, “This may be death, but I’m ready”. Others, including Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman and Frank Swift, moved to the back of the plane, believing it safer.[11] Once everyone was on board, Thain and Rayment got the plane moving again at 14:56.[30] At 14:59, they reached the runway holding point, where they received clearance to line up ready for take-off.[31] On the runway, they made final cockpit checks and at 15:02, they were told their take-off clearance would expire at 15:04.[32] The pilots agreed to attempt take-off, but that they would watch the instruments for surging in the engines. At 15:03, they told the control tower of their decision.[32]

Rayment moved the throttle forward slowly and released the brakes; the plane began to accelerate, and radio officer Bill Rodgers radioed the control tower with the message “Zulu Uniform rolling”.[33] The plane threw up slush as it gathered speed, and Thain called out the plane’s velocity in 10-knot increments.[33] At 85 knots, the port engine began to surge again, and he pulled back marginally on the port throttle before pushing it forward again.[33] Once the plane reached 117 knots (217 km/h), he announced “V1”, at which it was no longer safe to abort take-off, and Rayment listened for the call of “V2” (119 knots (220 km/h)), the minimum required to get off the ground.[34] Thain expected the speed to rise, but it fluctuated around 117 knots before suddenly dropping to 112 knots (207 km/h), and then 105 knots (194 km/h).[35] Rayment shouted “Christ, we won’t make it!”,[35] as Thain looked up to see what lay ahead.[36]

The plane skidded off the end of the runway, crashed into the fence surrounding the airport and across a road before its port wing was torn off as it caught a house, home to a family of six.[37] The father and eldest daughter were away and the mother and the other three children escaped as the house caught fire.[38] Part of the plane’s tail was torn off before the left side of the cockpit hit a tree.[38] The right side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut, inside which was a truck filled with tyres and fuel, which exploded.[39] Twenty passengers died on board, and three died later in hospital.

On seeing flames around the cockpit, Thain feared that the aircraft would explode and told his crew to evacuate the area. The stewardesses, Rosemary Cheverton and Margaret Bellis, were the first to leave through a blown-out emergency window in the galley, followed by radio officer Bill Rodgers.[40] Rayment was trapped in his seat by the crumpled fuselage and told Thain to go without him. Thain clambered out of the galley window.[40] On reaching the ground, he saw flames growing under the starboard wing, which held 500 imperial gallons (2,300 L) of fuel. He shouted to his crew to get away and climbed back into the aircraft to retrieve two handheld fire extinguishers, stopping to tell Rayment he would be back when the fires had been dealt with.[40]

Meanwhile, in the cabin, goalkeeper Harry Gregg was regaining consciousness, thinking that he was dead.[41] He felt blood on his face and “didn’t dare put [his] hand up. [He] thought the top of [his] head had been taken off, like a hard boiled egg.”[42] Just above him, light shone into the cabin, so Gregg kicked the hole wide enough for him to escape. He also managed to save some passengers.

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