What Caused the 1958 Munich Air Disaster that Killed the Busby Babes?
On February 6, 1958, a plane crash forever changes the world when ten world famous footballers from the Manchester United team are killed in what is now known as the Munich Air Disaster. Immediately, the German investigation claims the crash was caused by the pilots who failed to properly de-ice the plane. But the disgraced captain soon embarked on his own investigation to clear his name. What begins as one man’s journey to find the truth ultimately changes aviation’s understanding of the dangers of slush on a runway during takeoff. Ten years after the crash, British authorities identify the true cause of the crash: slush build up at the end of a runway which prevented lift off and caused the plane fall back to earth.
Manchester United Football Team a Symbol of Pride and Joy During Tough Times
In 1958, the year in which the Munich Air Disaster happened, the Manchester United football team, led by Coach Matt Busby, is the most famous team on the planet. Affectionately known as the Busby Babes, Manchester United is considered to be the most talented group of footballers that Manchester has ever assembled. They are the equivalent of today’s Chicago Bulls basketball team of the mid-90s or the American football team, the Patriots, of the last decade.
In 1956, two year prior, Manchester United won the division league title and then they did it again in 1957. They were described as “all but unstoppable.” By 1958, they were 4th in the table but lost just one time in 13 games. They were again on the verge of another league title. Their victories had lifted the spirits of the British people, who in the 1950s were deep in post-war austerity. Fans compared having the Manchester United team to “winning the lottery”. They were an inspiration and were dearly loved.
One of the key players was Duncan Edwards. He is one of the youngest players at just 18 and is seen to be a true great of the game. He is considered the team’s heartbeat. And United is the first English club to enter the European Cup, and they did so by defying the English Football Association. Coach Matt Busby saw the cup as the future.
On February 3, the team members, their coaches and team secretary, and journalists traveled to Yugoslavia for a European Cup quarter final against Red Star Belgrade, who was in their own right, a very talented team. On the field that day, it is freezing cold. In the black and white footage from the game that day, the players are standing on the side lines, slightly shivering as they play in their short-sleeved jerseys and shorts. But, despite the cold, the team is determined to win. United defeats the Red Star team 2-1 in the first half, but the Red Star team makes a fierce comeback in the second half and the game ends as a “3 all draw”, or a 3-3 tie. Despite the tie, the United team is still 5-4 overall in the quarter finals and they earn their way to the semi-finals for the second year in a row.
Manchester United Team Plans to Depart from Munich in Elizabethan Plane
On February 6, just three days later, the football team, still in high spirits over the anticipated semi-final matches, is flying back to Manchester on a twin-engine Elizabethan charter plan for British European Airways (BEA). The plane was an Airspeed AS.57 Ambassador, which is a British twin piston-engine airliner, often referred to as "Elizabethans” for Britain’s newly crowned Queen Elizabeth. This is considered a luxurious aircraft.
The plane is piloted by two flight crew. The pilot, Captain James Thain, was a former Royal Air Force (RAF) flight lieutenant with an impeccable service record. He retired from the RAF to join BEA. The first officer, Captain Kenneth Rayment, was also a former RAF flight lieutenant and a Second World War flying ace. He shot down five German fighters, one Italian plane and a V-1 flying bomb. He joined BEA in 1947 and is in fact senior to Captain Thain. And they were also great friends and flew together often.
Traveling with the team are also journalists and a few Yugoslavians catching a ride to the UK, for a total of 38 passengers and 6 crew on Flight 609.
The plane stops over to refuel in Munich, where there was a recent snowstorm, and the snow from the morning soon turns to melting slush in the afternoon. The pilots decide that Rayment will be the flying pilot on this leg, and even though it is customary that the flying pilot sit in the right seat, Rayment sits in the left seat. In the passenger cabin, the mood is joyful and celebratory. The team and the rest of the passengers make their way onboard and settle in for their flight back home to Manchester.
BEA 609 Attempts Multiple Takeoffs from Runway During Wintry Conditions
At 2:19 PM, air traffic control (ATC) gives Flight 609 clearance to take off. The plane starts down the runway. Then, just as it comes to full power, Captain Rayment abandons the take-off after Captain Thain notices the port boost pressure gauge fluctuating just as the plane reached full power. What also gave the captain concern was that the engine sounded odd while accelerating. The problem was boost surging, which apparently was normal for the Elizabethan aircraft, especially while taking off from airports at high altitudes. This causes the thrusts to unexpectedly open too quickly.
Inside the cabin, passengers feel the power of the initial run, but then are jolted by the sudden stop, and then the plane starts to spin, coming to a sideways stop on the runway. The captains tell the tower they have aborted the takeoff, explains what happened, and requests to try again. The plane taxis back to the airport to get ready for a second takeoff attempt.
Captain Thain confirms with ATC that his takeoff clearance is still valid, and the plane gets ready to take off again. Harry Gregg, the United team’s goalkeeper says that he pays more attention this time and that others in the cabin were, too. What just happened makes the mood in the cabin start to darken. For the second time, the plane begins powering down the runway. And then inexplicably, just like before and just as they are about to lift off, the plane comes to a jarring, screeching halt on the runway.
The Captain uses the intercom to explain that there is a fault with the plane, and they are looking into it. Captain Thain also reassures them there’s nothing to be alarmed about, but that they are returning to the airport. With that, everyone disembarks and returns to the terminal.
An airport engineer, who happens to notice the two aborted takeoffs, comes onboard to talk with the two pilots about what the issue might be. After the pilots explain to him what they noticed about the boost surge, the engineer tells the pilots this is normal and provides them with instructions should it happen again: reduce power, decelerate the engines, and then take the engines slowly back up to full power again.
Just five minutes after they disembarked the plane, all the passengers are asked to come back onboard. This time, there is a definite sense of fear and unease growing among the passengers. The normally boisterous Busby Babes are now very quiet, and the tension in the air is palpable. Johnny Berry, a United player, reportedly says, “We’re all gonna get freakin’ killed here.” And then player Billy Whelan says, “Well, if it happens, I’m ready.” And Harry Gregg is also afraid. But they are young men, and this is 1958. No one is going to voice this fear because, as Harry Gregg later said, who has the moral courage to speak up and admit to being a coward?
With everyone back onboard and in their seats, the pilots get ready to takeoff…for the third time. They line up the plane on the center of the runway and start their takeoff run. The plane reaches full power. Then, predictably, the boost surges slightly. Captain Rayment follows the exact procedure the engineer instructed him to follow. They reach V1, which as we know, is the point of no return. They can no longer safely abort this takeoff. At 119 knots (or 137 mph), the plane should become airborne. But, they never reach that speed. In fact, shortly after reaching V1, the plane’s speed drops from 117 knots to just 105 knots. But it is not slow enough to avoid what comes next.
BEA 609 Crashes at End of Runway at Munich Airport
The plane hurdles past the end of the runway and keeps on going, breaking through a perimeter fence. It then crashes into a nearby house and fuel shed, which explodes into the plane upon impact. Survivor Bobby Charlton, a United player, recalls he remembers the plane taking off for the third time, and then going down the runway – and then the plane kept going, and kept going, and kept going. Other survivors said that as the plane ran off the runway and hit the shed, they could see a mixture of daylight and darkness and sparks along with objects hitting them in the head as the plane collides first with the perimeter fence and then the house and shed. Many of them lost consciousness during the moment of impact. The plane’s fuselage is completely shattered.
Manchester Footballer Makes Heroic Rescues
Harry Gregg, the Irish goalkeeper, comes to and realizes that amazingly he is alive. At first, however, he thinks he is the only survivor. Gregg crawls out of the plane to see Captain Thain, who also has survived, and who shouts at him, “Run you stupid bastard, it’s going to explode”. But Gregg hears a baby crying from inside the plane. He goes into the plane and rescues the 20-month-old baby and her badly injured, pregnant mother. They are Vera and Venona Lukic, both of whom are Yugoslavian passengers who happened to join the team on the plane. But then Gregg sees the bodies of his teammates, and in a show of true heroism, drags their bodies from the burning wreckage, even knowing that some of the men he carries are already dead. To him, these are his brothers. And he isn’t going to leave them on that plane. Twice he returns to the burning fuselage to drag team-mates and strangers to safety. Gregg rescues United team-mates Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, who have survived. Of the heroic feats, Gregg said later, “You do what comes naturally to you on that given day. I am no John Wayne. I am no different than anybody else. I am a survivor.”
In addition to this heroism, two German workers jump onto the top of the plane and free Captain Rayment from the wreckage. But the damage caused by the crash is catastrophic.
Manchester Mourns the Loss of Busby Babes in Munich Air Disaster
Twenty-one people are dead, among them seven United players. Also among the dead are United staffers Walter Crickmer, the club secretary; Tom Curry, trainer; and Bert Whalley, the chief coach. The famous Manchester United team is essentially wiped out.
Journalist Frank Swift also dies. And unfortunately, though Captain Rayment survived the initial impact and was rescued from the wreckage, he suffers multiple injuries and dies in the hospital five weeks later because of brain damage due to the crash.
Only ten United players survive the crash. Many of them are taken to the hospital in serious and critical condition, which includes Bobby Charlton and Coach Matt Busby, who is in critical condition. Harry Gregg, the team’s goalkeeper hero, saw Coach Busby on the ground right after the crash happened, and he said one of Busby’s legs was completely twisted around. Bobby Charlton later awakens in the hospital after a severe concussion and only then learns the fate of his teammates and the enormity of the loss.
When a plane prepares to depart for Manchester to bring the boys’ bodies home, Harry Gregg is there on tarmac, watching in the dark. He has defied hospital orders to go see his teammates’ coffins be carried on to the plane. He feels compelled to be there and to bear witness.
Four days later, the first film footage of the crash makes its way to Britain. The images show the BEA plane crumpled into the house, and the snow beneath the wreckage is charred black from the fire and jet fuel. People cannot believe what they are seeing on the footage. One fan declared, “At the moment you don’t think there will ever be another tomorrow.”
Manchester is a city in mourning and most take this loss as a personal one.
And when football games throughout England commenced just days later, one spectator said of the very muted stadium atmosphere, the crowd wore black armbands and as the English saying goes, “even the seats were in tears.”
When a plane transporting the bodies of the seven deceased Busby Babes lands back in England, people line up in the dark to watch the procession. Like Gregg, people felt as if they had to be there, to say both farewell and thank you to the young men who had given their city such hope and promise.
And then unspeakably, fifteen days after the crash, comes another tragedy: Duncan Edwards, the heartbeat of the team, dies. He played 106 times for his country and experts say he would have changed the course of football forever had he lived.
Hans Reichel Leads Investigation into Munich Air Disaster
Clearly, there is urgency to understand what caused the tragedy that robbed a nation of their beloved football players. But the investigation is already underway and started only six hours after the crash. At 10 PM on the night of the crash, investigator Hans Reichel, a West German chief accident investigator, and a former Luftwaffe pilot and commercial pilot, comes to the scene. This is his first major, international accident.
Given this crash takes place just a little more than ten years after World War II, these are high political stakes. Both the pilots were former RAF pilots. Britain and Germany are still on thin diplomatic ice with one another, which means everyone involved in this investigation wants to tread lightly.
Reichel first assumes that the cause of the crash has something to do with ice. In fact, when he inspects the plan at the scene, he finds that the only surface free of ice on the plane is a spot on the wings near the engines. He assumes that the propellers blew off the ice from each wing upon takeoff. He and his team examine tire tracks indicating the aircraft never got airborne, which reinforces for Reichel that ice on the wings prevented a successful takeoff.
Two days after the crash, Reichel interviews Captain Thain, the sole survivor of the flight crew. When Reichel asks him what HE thinks is the cause of the crash, Thain responds by saying he believes the plane encountered a large quantity of snow or ice at the end of the runway that prevented the plane from getting lift. Not ice. Reichel asks Captain Thain if he deiced before takeoff, and Thain says no he did not, because when he inspected the plane before they took off, there was no ice on the wings, only snow. In fact, he knew the temperature at the time of the flight was 32 degrees, which is not cold enough to create ice. It is at this point that Reichel starts to focus in on why Captain Thain was not in the left seat if he was the non-flying pilot. Reichel asserts that because the pilots were not in the correct seats, this must have caused even greater confusion in the cockpit and somehow contributed to the disaster as well.
Official German Inquiry into Munich Air Disaster Finds Pilot Error
Based on Reichel’s investigation, the German government opens an official inquiry, and Captain Thain immediately feels like this is a set-up, that he is about to be cast as the villain in this story. The big point of disagreement is about whether ice is on the wings at the time of the crash. Thain said there was not, that it was too warm to form ice. But German experts say that because the plane ascended into Munich from much higher, colder temperatures, any snow that fell during the descent would have indeed formed ice. Thain counters that he did de-ice the plane – during descent, making the wings warmer, not colder, and hence too warm for ice to form.
During this inquiry, Reichel produces what Germans consider to be the “smoking gun”: a photograph of the plane on the tarmac right before takeoff. It shows a white area on top of the wings that, to Reichel and the Germans, is interpreted as looking like snow and ice. Also, they say that because all other planes that day de-iced before takeoff and did not crash – except for the Elizabethan, which was not de-iced right before takeoff and DID crash – this shows the pilot made an error.
Armed with these pieces of evidence, the German authorities release their findings: Flight 609 crashed because the pilot failed to de-ice prior to takeoff. According to them and this official report, Captain Thain was solely responsible for the air crash.
Captain Thain Works to Clear His Name of Responsibility for Munich Air Disaster
The former RAF officer and accomplished commercial pilot, with his reputation now in tatters, resorts to farming activities to earn money. Not only is he bullied by the international press, he is constantly haunted by the crash, certain that ice on the wings didn’t cause the crash. He and his wife, Ruby, sit up every night and talk through the events, over and over again.
One year after the crash, in 1959, the first investigative report from the German authorities contributed to the public perception significantly. The report claimed “the aircraft was covered with snow about 8 centimeters thick; this could have been brushed aside. The ice was frozen firmly at the wings” and with that statement, they had placed the complete blame on Captain Thain. The basis of the German authorities' case relied on the icy condition of the wings hours after the crash and a photograph of the aircraft (published in several newspapers) taken shortly before take-off – this was their smoking gun. The snapshot was taken by a United fan at the terminal that showed the aircraft after the second take-off failure and there appeared to be a white patch on the aircraft which the investigators claimed was snow.
Soon, Captain Thain decided to launch his own investigations into the matter and find out the actual reason behind the crash. The challenge is, this is 1959 and he has none of the forensic tools available to him that investigators of today have. The biggest fact that does not add up for Thain is that on the third and final takeoff, the plane speed reached 117 knots and then drastically slowed to 105 knots. Ice cannot explain that. Captain Thain thinks what would cause this is slush on the runway.
When looking at the German claim that other planes took off and did not encounter slush that day, Thain posits the reason for this: other planes did not have the boost surging issues that their plane had, when Thain had to accelerate more slowly and then gradually build speed back up again, which meant it had to use more of the runway. The other planes took off at the normal distance of about 2/3 of the way down the runway, whereas the Elizabethan plane had to use the last third of the runway to takeoff.
Without that forensic evidence, Captain Thain looks at the only evidence he can: past plane crashes. He soon discovers that a Trans-Canada flight from nine years before failed to takeoff when it encountered just two inches of slush on the runway. Following this crash, the Canadian government issued a warning to all airlines that planes should not takeoff in slush greater than two inches deep. But for some reason, Thain finds that this memo to the airlines was filed away and no action was taken by BEA.
In addition to the previous plane crash, Captain Thain also uncovers witnesses. One the two German men who helped to get Captain Rayment out of the plane testified in the German inquiry that he did NOT see any ice on the plane’s fuselage. But only part of his statement was read aloud to the German authorities during the inquiry. Another witness’s testimony supports Thain’s claim of no ice on the wings. One of the controllers who was watching all three takeoffs of Flight 609 remembers that on the final takeoff run, the plane’s nose lifted off the ground for a few seconds like it was about to lift off, but then it suddenly came back down on the runway again, and then the plane crashed shortly thereafter.
These statements were not admitted in the controller’s testimony to the German authorities. What the controller sees mirrors what Captain Thain described in his testimony: that the plane’s speed suddenly slowed down, preventing the lift off. The only eyewitness testimony that seems to support the German conclusions is the airport manager. But here is the catch: if the crash was caused by ice on the wings, it is the captain’s fault, but if there is slush on the runway that caused the crash, then the airport to blame.
The airport manager says after the crash, he measured the amount of slush on the runway and it was only 1.5 inches deep, well below the threshold that would prevent a plane from taking off. But the airport manager only measured the runway in one place, and experts in snow and ice accumulation say that he would have had to measure several places on the runway since slush accumulates unevenly across surfaces.
And lastly, a significant piece of evidence comes from Ruby Thain, Captain Thain’s wife. Ruby is a trained chemist and has degrees in chemistry and physics. She sees that the massive amount of fire extinguishing chemicals sprayed on the aircraft caused the snow to melt. She next does what any scientist would do: she conducts an experiment to ascertain why the snow melted.
Ruby secures a sampling of fire extinguisher powder, sprinkles it during winter on the hood of the car (since that surface is similar to a wing’s surface) and finds something startling: when mixed with snow and water, the solution would freeze at a lower temperature than what was recorded at the time of the crash (which was 32 degrees). Basically, as the night got colder, the solution froze in the places where it was sprayed, whereas on the places it was not sprayed, there was no ice. Her experiment explained why there may have been ice when Reichel examined the plane – he got there five hours after the crash, and by then, the solution would have indeed been frozen on the wings.
With eyewitness reports and scientific evidence, a new side of the story begins to form. Captain Thain submits this collection of evidence to the German authorities, requesting that they reexamine the first investigation into the crash. But they refuse.
And to add insult to injury, in 1961, BEA officially fires Captain Thain for a breach of their regulations since he did not change seats with his first officer, Captain Kenneth Rayment. And to those close to him, they believe this was a technicality since it was something that other pilots had done as well and never been disciplined for.
Germans Agree to Review Original Munich Air Disaster Investigation
Finally, in 1965, the Germans agree to review the original investigation. And this time, Captain Thain has even more evidence on his side. In the previous few years, the British royal aviation establishment has been conducting tests on the Elizabethan to see the effects of slush on runways during takeoff and landing. The tests reveal that when there is slush on the runway, it causes the plane to slow from 117 knots to 105 knots, the exact same reductions in speed that Captain Thain reported in his original testimony.
But the 1965 German review is hardly rigorous. They only hold hearings over two days. At the conclusion, Reichel denies the slush theory, refuses to examine the aviation test evidence, and reconfirms the plane crashed because of Captain Thain’s failure to de-ice the wings. To them, this matter is over.
But, then, something amazing happens in 1967. Britain’s most powerful politician, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, attends a Manchester United football game, and as he is leaving the stadium, he makes a statement claiming that he believed Captain Thain was a victim of injustice. The comments create a media frenzy.
British Investigation into Munich Air Disaster Clears Captain of Blame
In 1968, British investigators begin their own investigation to find out who was really responsible for the 1958 Munich air disaster. They immediately find that the photograph of the aircraft taken by the United fan (known as the supposed smoking gun) didn’t show any ice. When they reviewed the negative of that picture, it showed no ice on the wings. Instead, that white area was the reflection of light from the wet surface of the plane, which made the Germans believe that it was snow. The results exposed the big blunder of the German report. The report stated that ice on the wings of the aircraft was the sole reason for the crash. It was the captain’s duty to clear it off the wings before the final call for the take off.
But on re-investigation by three separate experts, it appeared that the thick slush on the runway created excessive friction which contributed to the loss of velocity that prevented the take off. It was the duty of the airport authority to clear the runway which they failed to do. And lastly, the British identified another witness whose testimony was omitted by Reichel. This witness, Reinhardt Meier, was one of the junior German investigators and also a pilot, and he was there at the night of the crash and saw no ice on the wings. Meier said he told Reichel directly the night of the crash that he saw no ice on the wings.
The British Government, on March 1969 and eleven years after the crash, formally clears James Thain’s name. As the official cause, British authorities recorded a build-up of melting snow on the runway which prevented the "Elizabethan" from reaching the required take-off speed.
Captain Thain Cleared, But Tragedy Takes its Toll
The outcome is bittersweet for Thain, who having been dismissed by BEA shortly after the accident, never flew again. Shortly after the British investigation, he returned to run his poultry farm in Berkshire. He died of a heart attack at age 53 just six years later. His family say the stress and trauma of the crash and subsequent investigations caused him to pass early.
Regarding the once fallen and then resurrected hero Captain Thain, one modern-day crash investigator who was interviewed during the Air Disaster episode said that there were 23 victims of the Munich Air Disaster and Captain Thain was its 24th.
Thain’s legacy is important. Due to the British investigations into the Munich Air Disaster, we now have an improved understanding of the dangers of slush. Many in aviation believe that Thain’s legacy has saved countless lives over the years.
What Happened to the Surviving Busby Babes After the Munich Air Disaster
At the heart of this tragedy was a team: Manchester United. Within ten years, Matt Busby rebuilt the team and took them to two League Championships from 1964/65 season and 1967/68 season, and the 1962/63 F.A. Cup. This second generation of Busby Babes were able to achieve what their predecessors had set out to do some ten years before them.
For most of the players who survived the plane crash, life was difficult, and this tragedy always loomed large. And surprisingly, many of them talked about how they survived this terrible ordeal only to be abandoned very coldly by the club they loved so much and had done so much for.
Jackie Blanchflower survived, but never played football again. In a 1998 interview he admitted that he never got over not being able to play. He was told eight or nine months after the crash that he couldn't play again. Not wanting to accept his fate, he even went to see a specialist in London who confirmed the news. At the time Blanchflower lived in a house owned by the club. Once it was determined that he would not play again he was asked to vacate it. The Blanchflowers said they were treated very harshly by the United club and that they were very cold to them after the crash. He ended his days as an after-dinner speaker and passed away in 1998.
Like Blanchflower, Johnny Berry never played again, having suffered a fractured skull, broken pelvis and broken jaw, that necessitated the removal of all his teeth. While in the hospital, he was so seriously injured, he received last rites. Berry received his end-of-employment notice from the club by post. He, his wife and eight-month-old son were also asked to vacate their United-owned home. He died in 1994.
United goalkeeper Ray Wood, who died in 2002, played just one first-team game after the crash and was later sold to Huddersfield Town within a year. He spent seven seasons at Huddersfield, playing more than 250 first-team games, although he was unable to help them win promotion to the First Division. He continued to play over the next few years, including one season at Bradford City, before finishing his career with two seasons at Barnsley. He ended up coaching the Cyprus and Kenya national football teams. He also coached teams in Los Angeles and Cyprus.
Albert Scanlon, who fractured his skull in the crash, was made bitter when, due to his injuries from the flight, he could no longer make the transfer to the Arsenal team. He explained that the compensation the players received was a few hundred pounds from BEA (the airline). The club did pay their wages while they were injured, but apart from that, he said the club gave the survivors nothing. When he was discharged, on crutches, from the hospital in Munich, Scanlon returned to Britain, understanding that the taxi he used in the following weeks was being paid for by the club. Club secretary Les Olive, however, advised him to stop using the taxi, informing him that the club wasn't, in fact, footing the bill.
Bobby Charlton is regarded as one of the greatest players of all time and was a member of the England team that won the 1966 FIFA World Cup. For years, he suffered from survivor’s guilt, wondering why he lived and not others.
And then there is Harry Gregg. He spent nine years with the Red Devils and, although he never won a medal with the club, he had an unforgettable career. He eventually left football, held a managerial career, and lived a relatively quiet life. When he died in February of 2020 at the age of 87, he left Bobby Charlton as the only remaining of the original Manchester United Busby Babes.
It wasn't until 1998 that the Manchester United club staged a benefit match for the survivors of Munich. After expenses, each of the living survivors, or their immediate families, received £47,000 (which is about $72K in today’s dollars). Eric Cantona, the star football attraction that night, and his team received £90,555 for travel and miscellaneous expenses.
It is undeniable how much the crash of Flight 609 forever changed the lives of everyone onboard, their families, and the lives of the fans who loved the Manchester United players so much. As one fan in the documentary on this disaster said, “We’ll never forget them, never.”
And THAT is the story of British European Airways Flight 609, also known as the 1958 Munich Air Disaster.