On this day in 1958, a British European Airways flight crashes just after takeoff from the Munich Airport. Twenty-three people died in the crash, including eight players from the Manchester United soccer team, which had just qualified for the semifinals of the European Cup.
The Manchester United team was returning from Belgrade, where they had played the Red Star team. Manchester was led by Coach Matt Busby; his young players were known as the “Busby Babes.” A 3-3 tie with Red Star meant that Manchester United moved on to the semi-finals of the European Cup.
The team’s flight back to Manchester was delayed an hour because one of the players forgot his passport. The Airspeed Ambassador G-ALZU charter then stopped at Munich-Riem Airport to re-fuel. Munich had just had a snowstorm and conditions were not ideal for flying. Pilot James Thain had to abort his first two attempts at take-off because of engine trouble. On the third attempt, just after 3 p.m., the plane was unable to get enough lift and crashed into a fence at the end of the runway. It then plowed into an empty house.
Twenty-two of the 43 people on board died in the crash. Seven players were among the dead and an eighth, Duncan Edwards, died from his injuries two weeks later, bringing the total death toll to 23. Coach Busby suffered severe injuries and was in critical condition for weeks. The plane’s captain survived the crash and was later charged with criminal negligence after photos appeared to show that he had ignored an icy buildup on the wings.
A subsequent investigation revealed that there was little ice on the wings but that slush at the end of the runway had slowed the plane at a critical point in the takeoff, making it impossible to achieve proper lift. Still, German prosecutors did not clear the captain until 1968. That same year, Coach Busby led Manchester United to their first European Cup title. The team included two players who had survived the crash.
Singer Morrissey (formerly of the band The Smiths) immortalized the crash with his 2004 song “Munich Air Disaster 1958.”