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  • 2/6/2011

Today in History: The Munich Air Disaster (1958)


The Munich air disaster took place 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 in Munich, West Germany.

 On board the plane was the Manchester United football team, nicknamed the "Busby Babes", along with a number of supporters and journalists. 20 of the 44 people on board the aircraft died in the crash. The injured, some of whom had been knocked unconscious, were taken to the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich where 3 more died, resulting in a total of 23 fatalities with 21 survivors.

The team was returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, against Red Star Belgrade, but had to make a stop in Munich for refuelling, as a non-stop trip from Belgrade to Manchester was out of the "Elizabethan" class Airspeed Ambassador aircraft's range. After refuelling, the pilots, Captains James Thain and Kenneth Rayment, attempted to take off twice, but had to abandon both attempts due to boost surging in the port engine. Fearing that they would get too far behind schedule, Captain Thain rejected an overnight stay in Munich in favour of a third take-off attempt.

By the time of the third attempt, it had begun to snow, causing a layer of slush to build up at the end of the runway. When the aircraft hit the slush, it lost velocity, making take-off impossible. It ploughed through a fence past the end of the runway, before the port wing hit a nearby house and was torn off. Fearing that the aircraft might explode, Captain Thain set about getting the surviving passengers as far away as possible. Despite this, Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg remained behind to pull survivors from the wreckage.

An investigation by the West German airport authorities originally blamed Captain Thain for the crash, claiming that he had failed to de-ice the wings of the aircraft, despite statements to the contrary from eyewitnesses. It was later established that the crash had, in fact, been caused by the build-up of slush on the runway, which had resulted in the aircraft being unable to achieve take-off velocity; Thain's name was eventually cleared in 1968, ten years after the incident.

At the time of the disaster, Manchester United were trying to become only 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 were also holders of the Charity Shield and had just advanced into their second successive European Cup semi-final. The team were also on an 11 match unbeaten run, and had booked their place in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup two weeks previously.

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com

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