The most distressing piece of news in our house in 1958 was most undoubtedly the Munich air disaster of 6th February when an air crash at Munich Airport in Germany caused the deaths of eight Manchester United players and several club officials and sports journalists. In 1958 the Manchester United team was one of the most talented in the World and was known as the Busby Babes, which was a reference to their manager Matt Busby and to the average age of the players, which at twenty-four was unusually young.
Manchester United had been to Yugoslavia to play the second leg of a European cup match against Red Star Belgrade. The match had ended in a 3-3 draw and United had won the tie 5-3 on aggregate. In the 1950s domestic league matches were played on Saturdays and European matches were played midweek and there wasn’t the same amount of flexibility around fixtures that there is today and having played the match there was no alternative but to return home to England immediately despite poor weather conditions.
The club had chartered an aeroplane to fly them home but the takeoff from Belgrade was delayed for an hour as one of the players had lost his passport, and then the aircraft made a scheduled stop in Munich to refuel. The plane was a British European Airways Airspeed Ambassador, which was an aircraft that had carried nearly two and a half million passengers on eighty-six thousand flights since it began service in 1952 and had an immaculate safety record. After refueling the pilot tried to take off twice, but both attempts were aborted. When a third take off was attempted the plane failed to gain adequate height and crashed into the fence surrounding the airport, then into a house, and caught fire. Although the crash was originally blamed on pilot error, it was subsequently found to have been caused by the build-up of slush towards the end of the runway, causing deceleration of the aircraft and preventing safe take off speed from being achieved.
Seven players died immediately in the crash, Roger Byrne, the captain, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman, Tommy Taylor, Liam Whelan, David Pegg and Geoff Bent. Probably the most famous Busby Babe of all was Duncan Edwards who was tipped at the time to become one of the World’s greatest footballers but although he survived the crash he died from his injuries a few days later in hospital. In 1953 he had become the youngest footballer to play in the Football League First Division and at the age of 18 years and one hundred and eighty-three days, he had made his international debut for England in April 1955, and became England’s youngest post-war debutant. This record was not broken for forty-three years, when Michael Owen made his England debut in 1998.
Matt Busby who was himself very seriously injured in the crash resumed managerial duties the following season and eventually built a second generation of Busby Babes, including George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton (who also happened to be one of the original Busby Babes) that went on to win the European Cup ten years after the disaster in 1968.
As a football fan this was devastating news for my dad who for many years afterwards always remembered the tragedy and spoke fondly of the lost Manchester United team. In a scrap book that he kept at the time he kept the front page of the Daily Mail which covered the story on the next day. The only other two newspaper front pages that he kept were those that reported the assassination of Kennedy and the death of Winston Churchill. That’s how much it meant to him. And he never bought me an Airfix model of the BEA Airspeed Ambassador either.
We remember Manchester United but we should also remember:
- The Zambian national football team was flying on a military plane on its way to Senegal for a 1994 World Cup qualification match, when the plane crashed in the late evening of April 27, 1993. All 30 passengers and crew, including 18 players, as well as the national team coach and support staff, were lost in the accident.
- The Superga air disaster took place on Wednesday, 4 May, 1949, when a plane carrying almost the entire Torino A.C. football squad, popularly known as Il Grande Torino, crashed into the hill of Superga, near Turin, killing all 31 aboard, including 18 players, club officials, journalists accompanying the team and the plane’s crew.
- The 1987 Alianza Lima air disaster took place on December 8, 1987, when a Peruvian Navy Fokker F27-400M, chartered by Peruvian football club Alianza Lima, plunged into the Pacific Ocean six miles short of its destination. On board the flight were a total of 44 players, managers, staff, cheerleaders and crewmembers, of which only the pilot survived the accident.