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Munich '58 remembered: Tom Allett reports on how the shocking death of eight Manchester United footballers 50 years ago led to a change in how we deal with wintry runway conditions.


On February 6, 1958, Munich's Reim Airport was the scene of a crash that claimed 23 lives, among them eight of Britain's most famous sportsmen.

At the time, the fame of the young Manchester United footballers involved--nicknamed the 'Busby Babes' after their Manager Matt Busby--was so great that they had become household names in the UK. Like many other 'stars' that die young, those killed achieved legendary status. This, combined with the football club's continued success over the last half-century, has ensured that the crash still looms large in Britain's collective memory.

In the late 1950s, despite the relatively short time the team had been together, Manchester United's young players had already earned a great reputation, but it looked capable of achieving so much more. It was not to be ...

As their Second Round European fixture entailed a long trip to the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade, the football club chartered its own aircraft.

British European Airways (BEA) provided G-ALZU, (Zulu Uniform) one of its twin-propeller engined Airspeed Ambassadors for the journey. The aircraft didn't have the range to fly from Manchester's Ringway Airport direct to Belgrade, so a refuelling 'tech stop' would be made at Munich's Reim.

Six crewmembers were selected to operate the charter service. The two pilots were both current and experienced Ambassador captains in their own right, but for the purpose of this journey, Captain James Thain was to command the flight, while Captain Kenneth Rayment would be his co-pilot. The flight out to Belgrade's Zemun Airport on February 3, was uneventful--the match, played two days later in snowy conditions, was anything but. The hosts, Red Star Belgrade, came back from being 0-3 down at half-time to force a 3-3 draw. It was an exciting match for the travelling press pack to report on.

The next day, six crew and 38 passengers boarded flight BE609 for the journey home.

Strictly speaking, the return flights were not carried out in line with BEA's standard operating procedures, as the designated commander (Thain) had swapped seats with Captain Rayment, who would act as handling pilot for the two homeward-bound sectors from the left-hand seat. In reality however, this should not have been a contributing factor towards the crash, as Ken Rayment had even more experience in the Ambassador's left-hand seat than James Thain.

The trip home began with a routine departure from Belgrade, but the en route weather forecasts were not good. Inbound to Munich Reim Airport the wintry conditions were slowly deteriorating, but Captain Rayment was still able to make a normal landing. After approximately 45 minutes on the ground the flight was called for boarding.

At 15:30 the first take-off run began normally, with the aircraft accelerating up to an indicated air speed of approximately 105kts. However, having achieved that speed, takeoff was abandoned when the pilots noticed that the boost pressure settings for both engines had exceeded the maximum allowed. The crew back-tracked to the end of the runway while assessing the problem.

It was known that pressure readings could fluctuate on the Ambassador in humid atmospheric conditions at certain elevations, so it was decided that a second attempt would be made. This also began routinely, but when the port engine again exceeded its normal parameters, the throttles were closed and the aircraft was allowed to roll to the end of the runway before being taxied back to its stand.

As the passengers disembarked, BEA's local station engineer boarded the aircraft and discussed the situation with the crew. All believed that the excessive pressure fluctuations were being caused by the humidity/elevation problem, which the engineer said wasn't critical. The pilots then decided to make a third take-off attempt so the passengers were asked to re-embark.

By coincidence, the West German Chancellor was due to fly into Reim that afternoon and immediately prior to the BEA crew's final departure attempt, a runway inspection was carried out by two of the airport's technical staff. They reported that the whole runway was covered in slush approximately: "0.5cm to 0.75cm deep". They noted that the deposits were: "not snow, but a watery gelatinous mass" and the tracks left from the first two take-off runs were: "pure water". In the investigation that followed the crash, other pilots who had taken off or landed soon before the accident contradicted this evidence.

At 16:03 local time 'Zulu Uniform' began rolling along Reim's 6,260ft (1,908m) runway for the last time. Initially accelerating along the largely slush-covered runway under maximum power, it was unable to take off despite at one point reaching an indicated air speed (IAS) of 11 7kts--the critical 'VI' point at which the crew must determine whether to continue with or abandon the departure run.

The take-off continued, but the indicated speed quickly fell back to approximately 105kts IAS. Although Captain Rayment did manage to briefly raise the nose gear from the runway for several seconds, it quickly touched down again. Almost immediately the nosewheel was raised for a second time, but the aircraft's emergency tailwheel made contact with the runway during this increasingly desperate attempt to get airborne. The nosewheel touched the ground for a second time but then all four mainwheels locked up during the braking and it overshot the end of the runway, crashed through the airfield's perimeter fence, crossed a road and hit a house, followed by a storage hut and a tree. The severed rear fuselage was consumed by fire but the forward section and wings survived largely intact.

Of the 44 persons on board, 21 were killed instantly, while another two would succumb to their injuries in hospital. Most of the survivors were seriously hurt.

Captain Thain escaped with only minor injuries, but Captain Ken Rayment slipped into a coma and died in hospital without regaining consciousness.

The other 22 fatalities included eight Manchester United players and three officials, eight members of the accompanying press pack, Steward Tom Cable and two other passengers.

After much conflicting evidence about the presence--or otherwise--of ice on the wings prior to the final take-off run, the initial German investigation attributed: "the decisive cause" of the crash to an accumulation of ice on the wings and flying surfaces. Its report also concluded that the slush on the runway: "had no appreciable effect". Furthermore, it mentioned the possibility that there could have been some confusion on the flightdeck because two captains were flying together and might have acted in opposition to each other during the final moments of the take-off run. Was it possible that one had been applying the brakes while the other continued to apply full power during the last few seconds of the take-off? The investigators considered that this could have been why the aircraft decelerated.

The finger of blame was pointed at Captain Thain for failing to de-ice the aircraft before departure. His pilot's licence was revoked by the UK's Ministry of Transport and, following a further independent hearing held in the UK, Captain Thain was sacked by BEA. Despite this he continued to vigorously contest the report's findings. Subsequently, there was a great deal of controversy regarding several 'experts' who, despite coming forward to assist the Inquiry, were not called upon to give evidence. Accusations of bias and cover-ups soon followed.

Despite the Reim crash being blamed on ice on the wings, various aviation authorities and airlines subsequently issued warnings to pilots about the dangers of taking off in slush.

Over the next few years other types of airliners were involved in similar slush incidents at other international airports, narrowly avoiding disaster. This led to further tests being carried out into the effects of slush of runways in both the UK and USA. The results of trials using another Ambassador aircraft revealed that taking off on a runway covered in just 0.5cm of slush could increase the distance required by a massive 50%. These findings appeared to prove that Captain Thain was correct in his belief that the runway conditions were to blame for the disaster and eventually, in November 1965, the Reim Inquiry was re-opened. Crucially however, no 'new' eye-witnesses were called. Once again, the German inquiry reported that ice on the wing was the primary cause, though it conceded that the slush could be: "an additional cause".

Surprisingly, written reports from rescuers who stated they were able walk on the wings without slipping while trying to gain access to the wrecked aircraft, were recorded as proving that the ice on the wing must have been rutted. Others believed it proved the wing was clear of ice. There followed yet more allegations of a pre-determined outcome and arguments over the crash investigation continued. However, after the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, showed an interest in the case, a British hearing--named the Fay Commission after its Chairman--was convened in June 1968.

Many of the German witnesses and experts invited to take part in the London event declined the opportunity; some saying that they had nothing further to add to their previous statements. However, one of the witnesses who had provided a written statement for the original inquiry, did travel to London even though he had not been invited to attend. As his statement was being read out at the Fay hearing, the gentleman dramatically interrupted saying that these were not the words he had written, and to prove it, he produced a copy of his original statement. It appeared that his original document had been altered by some unknown person.

Furthermore, the 'ice on the wings' theory put forward in the earlier hearings seemed to have gained credibility from a photograph taken by a Reim Airport employee from an office window overlooking the Ambassador's parking position. The picture had been taken shortly before the aircraft's third and fatal departure. On the copy of the photograph presented at the original Inquiry, the airliner's registration letters, G-ALZU, could not be seen on top of the wing and this was taken as proof that they must have been covered with ice; otherwise they would have been visible. For the Fay Commission, a print was taken from the original negative. This time, the 'missing' letters were clearly visible, leading the British inquiry to determine that no ice could have been present when the photograph was taken.


In March 1969, the findings of the Fay Commission were published. It declared that:

"We are satisfied that at or after V1 the aircraft's nosewheel re-entered the slush, had this not happened, the aircraft must have flown off. We are equally satisfied that the descent of the nosewheel was caused by increased drag exerted through the mainwheels, in other words, by the aircraft entering a trail of deeper and/or denser slush. This increase in slush drag is, in our view, the prime cause of the accident. We are satisfied that thereafter the aircraft ran with six wheels in the slush until towards the end of the runway it rotated to the point where the [emergency] tailwheel made contact with the ground. We can be sure that the period between V1 and rotation was one of deceleration. We cannot reach certainty as to the speed at the end of the period. Once the aircraft rotated without lifting off, the accident was inevitable. There was not enough runway left to regain sufficient speed. Our considered view, therefore is that the cause of the accident was slush on the runway. Whether wing icing was also a cause, we cannot say. It is possible, but unlikely. In accordance with our terms of reference we therefore report that, in our opinion, blame for the accident is not to be imputed to Captain Thain."

Although he had been exonerated by the Fay Commission, James Thain would never fly again and the strain of his decade-long legal battle must surely have taken its toll on him. He died in 1975 aged just 54.

Munich's Reim Airport closed on May 16, 1992, after being superseded by today's state-of the-art Franz-Josef Strauss facility which will serve the city of Munich for generations to come.

There is no doubt that the massive amount of press coverage surrounding the 1958 accident and its prolonged aftermath led to all airports and airlines refocusing on the way they operated in snow and slush conditions. Many airlines- large and small--issued more stringent guidelines that restricted movements in snow and slush and airports enhanced their runway-sweeping capabilities in order to keep their facilities running smoothly.

This was an accident that the industry would learn from ... The authour would like to thank Emma Claiden, David King, Steve Rayment and Mike Thomas for their considerable help with this article.

The Victims


Geoff Bent

Roger Byrne

Eddie Coleman

Duncan Edwards

Mark Jones

David Pegg

Tommy Taylor

Liam Whelan

Also Killed

Tom Cable

AIf Clarke

Walter Crickmer

Tom Curry

Don Davis

George Fellows

Tom Jackson

Archie Ledbrooke

Bela Miklos

Kenneth Rayment

Henry Rose

Willie Satinoff

Frank Swift

Eric Thompson

Bert Whalley
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Title Annotation:Winter Services
Author:Allett, Tom
Publication:Airports International
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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