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 football team, nicknamed the “Busby Babes”, along with supporters and journalists.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 Rayment twice 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”.