The Munich air disaster occurs on February 6, 1958 when British European Airways Flight 609 crashes on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem Airport, West Germany. On the plane is the Manchester United football team, nicknamed the “Busby Babes“, along with supporters and journalists. Twenty of the 44 on the aircraft die at the scene. The injured, some unconscious, are taken to the Rechts der Isar Hospital in Munich where three more die, resulting in 23 fatalities with 21 survivors. Among the Manchester United fatalities is inside forward Liam “Billy” Whelan who was born in Cabra on the northside of Dublin in 1935.
The team is 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 stops to refuel in Munich because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester is beyond the Airspeed Ambassador‘s range. After refuelling, pilots James Thain and Kenneth Rayment twice abandon take-off because of boost surging in the left engine. Fearing they will get too far behind schedule, Captain Thain rejects an overnight stay in Munich in favour of a third take-off attempt. By then snow is falling, causing a layer of slush to form at the end of the runway. After the aircraft hits the slush, it ploughs through a fence beyond the end of the runway and the left wing is torn off after hitting a house. Fearing the aircraft might explode, Thain begins evacuating passengers while Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg helps pull survivors from the wreckage.
An investigation by West German airport authorities originally blames Thain, saying he did not de-ice the aircraft’s wings, despite eyewitness statements to the contrary. It is later established that the crash is caused by the slush on the runway, which slows the plane too much to take off. Thain is cleared in 1968, ten years after the incident.
At the time of the disaster, Manchester United is trying to become the third club to win three successive English Football League titles. They are six points behind League leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers with 14 games to go. They also hold the Charity Shield and have just advanced into their second successive European Cup semi-final. The team has not been beaten in eleven consecutive matches. The crash not only derails their title ambitions that year but also virtually destroys the nucleus of what promised to be one of the greatest generations of players in English football history. It takes ten years for the club to recover, with Busby rebuilding the team and winning the European Cup in 1968 with a new generation of “Babes.”