The Munich Air Disaster
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. However, the English league winners, Chelsea, were denied entry by the Football League's secretary Alan Hardaker, who believed it was in the best interests of English football and football in general for them not to enter. The following season, the English league was won by Manchester United, managed by Matt Busby. Originally, the Football League again denied entry to the European Cup, 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 venture into Europe.
The Manchester United management had taken a chance, and it had paid off, with the team – known as the "Busby Babes" for their youth – proving the Football League wrong by reaching the semi-finals of the 1956–57 competition, being knocked out by eventual winners Real Madrid. Winning the First Division title again that season meant that they secured qualification for the 1957–58 tournament, and their successful cup run in 1956–57 meant that they were one of the favourites to win it. Domestic league matches were played on Saturdays and European matches were played midweek, so, although air travel was risky at the time, it was the only practical choice if United were to fulfill their league fixtures, which they would have to do if they were to avoid proving Alan Hardaker right.
After overcoming Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague in the preliminary round and the first round respectively, Manchester United were drawn with Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia for the quarter-finals. After beating the Yugoslavians 2–1 at Old Trafford on 21 January 1958, the club was scheduled 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 hastily made arrangements to fly to Amsterdam before taking the ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich and then the train up to Manchester. The trip took its toll on the players and they were only able to scrape a 3–3 draw with Birmingham City at St Andrew's three days later.
Eager not to miss any of their Football League fixtures in the future, and also not to have to go through such a difficult trip again, the club chartered a plane through British European Airways from Manchester to Belgrade for the away leg against Red Star. The match itself was drawn 3–3, but it was enough to send United to the semi-finals. The takeoff from Belgrade was delayed for an hour as United outside right Johnny Berry had lost his passport. The plane then made a planned stop in Munich to refuel, landing at 13:15 GMT.
Crash Captain James Thain, the pilot, had flown the "Elizabethan" class Airspeed Ambassador out to Belgrade, but handed the controls to his co-pilot, Captain Kenneth Rayment, for the return journey. At 14:19 GMT, the control tower at Munich airport was told that the plane was ready to go, and they were given clearance to attempt take-off. Captain Rayment abandoned the take off after Captain Thain had noticed the port boost pressure gauge fluctuating as the plane reached full power and the engine sounded odd while accelerating. A second attempt was made three minutes later, but, 40 seconds into the procedure, this too was called off before the plane got off the ground. The reason given for the failed attempts was that the engines had been running on an over-rich mixture, causing the engines to over-accelerate, a common problem for the Elizabethan-class plane. After the second failure, all the passengers were told to disembark from the plane and they retreated to the airport lounge. 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 took the opportunity to send a telegram ahead to his landlady in Manchester. It read: "All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan."
Captain Thain informed the station engineer, Bill Black, about the problem with the boost surging in the port engine, and Black suggested that since the immediate solution of opening the engine throttle more slowly had not worked, the only remaining option would be to hold the plane in Munich overnight for engine retuning. Thain was anxious to stay on schedule and suggested that 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 being almost 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) long, Thain believed that this should not pose a problem. Therefore, despite the snow, the passengers were called back out to the plane just 15 minutes after leaving it.
A few of the players were not confident fliers, particularly Liam Whelan, who was heard to say "This may be death, but I'm ready" shortly before takeoff. Others, including Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman and Frank Swift moved to the back of the plane, believing it to be safer. Once everyone was back on board, Captains Thain and Rayment got the plane moving again for a third take off attempt at 14:56. At 14:59, they reached the runway holding point, where they received clearance to line up ready for take-off. On the runway, the final cockpit checks were carried out and at 15:02, they were contacted to tell them that their take-off clearance would expire at 15:04. After discussion, the pilots agreed that they would attempt take-off, but they would keep a close watch on the instruments in case of any more surging in the engines. At 15:03, they contacted the control tower to inform them of their decision.
Captain Rayment slowly moved the throttle forward, as agreed, and released the brakes; the plane began to accelerate, and radio officer Bill Rodgers radioed the control tower with the message "Zulu Uniform rolling". As the plane gathered speed, throwing up slush as it went, Captain Thain called out the velocities in ten-knot increments. At 85 knots, the port engine began to surge again, and he pulled back marginally on the port throttle before gingerly pushing it forward again. Once the plane reached 117 knots (217 km/h), he announced "V1", indicating that they had reached the velocity at which it was no longer safe to abort the take off, and Captain Rayment listened out for the call of "V2" (119 knots (220 km/h)), the minimum speed required to get the plane off the ground. When Thain glanced back down to the airspeed indicator, expecting the needle to continue to rise, it fluctuated at around 117 knots before suddenly dropping back down to 112 knots (207 km/h), and then 105 knots (194 km/h). Rayment shouted "Christ, we won't make it!", as Thain looked up to see what lay ahead of them.
The plane skidded off the end of the runway and, out of control, crashed into the fence surrounding the airport and then across a road before its port wing was torn off as it caught a house, home to a family of six. The father and eldest daughter were away at the time, and the mother and the other three children narrowly escaped with their lives as the house caught fire. Part of the plane's tail was torn off too, before the left side of the cockpit hit a tree. The right side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut, inside which was a truck filled with tyres and fuel, which exploded. Twenty passengers died on board, and there were three subsequent deaths.
Upon seeing the flames licking up around the cockpit, Captain Thain feared that the burning fuel might make the aircraft explode and instructed 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, and they were followed by radio officer Bill Rodgers. Thain shouted to Rayment to get out of his seat, but Rayment was trapped in his seat by the crumpled fuselage. Rayment told Thain to go on without him. Thain clambered out of the galley window. Upon reaching the ground, he saw that flames were growing under the starboard wing, which still had an intact fuel tank containing 500 imperial gallons (2,300 L) of fuel. He shouted to his crew to get as far away as possible and climbed back into the aircraft to retrieve two handheld fire extinguishers, stopping momentarily to tell Rayment that he would be back for him when the fires had been dealt with.
Meanwhile, inside the passenger cabin, Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg was regaining consciousness, thinking that he was dead. He felt blood running down his face and he "didn't dare put [his] hand up. [He] thought the top of [his] head had been taken off, like a hardboiled egg." Just above him, a shaft of light was shining into the cabin, so Gregg made his way towards it and kicked the hole wide enough for him to escape through.
Seven of Manchester United's players died immediately, and Duncan Edwards died from his injuries on 21 February at the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich. Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were both injured so severely that they never played again. Matt Busby was seriously injured and had to stay in hospital for more than two months after the crash, and was read his Last Rites twice. After being discharged from hospital, he went to Switzerland to recuperate in Interlaken. At times, he felt like giving up on football entirely, until he was told by his wife, Jean, "You know Matt, the lads would have wanted you to carry on." That statement lifted Busby from his depression, and he returned by land to Manchester, before watching his team play in the 1958 FA Cup Final.
Meanwhile, there was speculation that the club would fold, but a threadbare United team completed the 1957–58 season, with Busby's assistant Jimmy Murphy standing in as manager; he had not travelled to Belgrade as he was in Cardiff managing the Welsh national team at the time. A team largely made up of reserve and youth team players beat Sheffield Wednesday 3–0 in the first match after the disaster. The programme for that match showed simply a blank space where each United player's name should have been. Following the loss of so many players in the crash, United were desperate to find replacements with experience, so Murphy turned to players like Ernie Taylor (signed for £8,000 from Blackpool) and Stan Crowther, the Aston Villa wing half who had played against United in the 1957 FA Cup Final.
There were changes amongst the backroom staff at the club too, following the deaths of secretary Walter Crickmer and coaches Tom Curry and Bert Whalley. United goalkeeper Les Olive, still registered as a player at the time of the disaster, retired from playing and took over from Crickmer as club secretary, while another former United goalkeeper, Jack Crompton, took over coaching duties after United chairman Harold Hardman had negotiated with Crompton's then-employers Luton Town for his release.
United only won one league game after the crash, causing their title challenge to collapse and they fell to ninth place in the league. They did manage to reach the final of the FA Cup, however, losing 2–0 to Bolton Wanderers, and even managed to beat Milan at Old Trafford in the semi-finals of the European Cup, only to lose 4–0 at the San Siro. Real Madrid, who went on to win the trophy for the third year running, suggested that Manchester United be awarded the trophy for that year – a suggestion supported by Red Star Belgrade – but this failed to materialise.
Busby resumed managerial duties the next season (1958–59), and eventually built a second generation of Busby Babes, including George Best and Denis Law, that ten years later won the European Cup, beating Benfica. Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes were the only two crash survivors who lined up in that team.
Geoff Bent - Manchester United Footballer
Roger Byrne - Manchester United Footballer
Tom Cable - cabin steward
Alf Clarke - Journalist - Manchester Evening Chronicle
Eddie Colman - Manchester United Footballer
Walter Crickmer - Manchester United Club Secretary
Tom Curry - Manchester United Trainer
Donny Davies - Journalist - Manchester Guardian
Duncan Edwards - Manchester United Footballer
George Follows - Journalist - Daily Herald
Tom Jackson - Journalist - Manchester Evening News
Mark Jones - Manchester United Footballer
Archie Ledbrooke - Journalist - Daily Mirror
Bela Miklos - Travel Agent
David Pegg - Manchester United Footballer
Kenneth Rayment - Co-Pilot
Henry Rose - Journalist - Daily Express
Willie Satinoff - Racecourse Owner and friend of Busby
Frank Swift - Journalist - News of the World
Tommy Taylor - Manchester United Footballer
Eric Thompson - Journalist - Daily Mail
Bert Whalley - Manchester United Chief Coach
Liam Whelan - Manchester United Footballer
Johnny Berry - Manchester United Footballer
Margaret Bellis - Stewardess
Jackie Blanchflower - Manchester United Footballer
Matt Busby - Manchester United Manager
Bobby Charlton - Manchester United Footballer
Rosemary Cheverton - Stewardess
Ted Ellyard - Daily Mail Telegraphist
Bill Foulkes - Manchester United Footballer
Harry Gregg - Manchester United Footballer
Peter Howard - Daily Mail Photographer
Venona Lukić - Passenger
Vera Lukić - Passenger
Eleanor Miklos - Wife of Bela Miklos
Kenny Morgans - Manchester United Footballer
George William Rodgers - Radio Officer
Albert Scanlon - Manchester United Footballer
Frank Taylor - News Chronicle Reporter
James Thain - Pilot
Nebosja Bato Tomašević - Yugoslavian diplomat
Dennis Viollet - Manchester United Footballer
Ray Wood - Manchester United Footballer