Rescue workers pictured in a snowstorm at the wreckage of the plane carrying the Busy Babes
As the aircraft powered down the Munich runway James Thain’s eyes were fixed firmly on the instruments panel, oblivious to the flurries of snow outside. Behind him tensions were running high in the passenger cabin because of the terrible weather and two previous aborted take-offs.
Every few seconds the former RAF man called out the rising speed to the pilot Kenneth Rayment, eventually reaching 117 knots. They’d arrived at the point of no return.
Then, instead of the extra acceleration needed to get airborne, the dials suddenly indicated that the plane was slowing. “Christ, we won’t make it,” yelled Rayment in horror.
The twin-engine Airspeed Ambassador ploughed through a perimeter fence, crossed a road and the port wing struck a house. There was the sound of crumpling metal before the stricken aircraft hit a tree and came to rest, flames licking round the cockpit. Then survivors recall an eerie silence and total darkness.
Some football fans still insist that “the Busby Babes” of Manchester United were the greatest team ever. At the time United was the nation’s leading club having won three league titles in five years. The Babes, named after their manager Matt Busby and with an average age of 22, were also bidding to become the first British team to lift the European Cup.
Without doubt Thain prevented another Munich
All their aspirations were destroyed in the Munich air disaster, which claimed the lives of 23 of the 44 people on board including eight players.
To mark the 60th anniversary on Tuesday there will be a commemorative service open to all at United’s Old Trafford stadium. Ahead of that is a minute’s silence at the home fixture against Huddersfield today.
Most of those who will attend weren’t born when the dream died in the snow. They will know the place in football history of the crash and its profound impact, not only on Manchester but the entire nation, however few will be aware that one man was unfairly made the scapegoat.
Captain James Thain, who was the commander of the flight, battled for more than a decade to clear his name. Yet even when it was established that he was not to blame the authorities in Germany refused to listen.
He never took the controls of a plane again and went to his grave prematurely, aged 54, still bitter about his shameful treatment.
The last team photo taken of the Busby Babes before the crash
Captain James Thain, the pilot of the Munich air crash, with his wife
“He was hung out to dry,” says Stephen Morrin, author of The Munich Air Disaster and an aviation historian. “The stress took its toll and probably played a part in his eventual death.”
In the immediate aftermath of the crash Thain, then 36, was initially regarded as one of the heroes. After ordering an evacuation he grabbed an axe and tried to free his badly injured colleague Rayment, who also held the rank of captain. Another survivor, United goalkeeper Harry Gregg, climbed back into the burning wreckage to drag team-mates clear. He also helped rescue a civilian passenger, Vera Lukic, and her baby daughter.
Around them was carnage with bodies laid out in the snow. “It was horrendous, a scene of utter devastation,” said Gregg, who was always haunted that he survived while so many of his pals died.
Players Liam Whelan, Roger Byrne, Tommy Taylor, Eddie Colman, Geoff Bent, Mark Jones and David Pegg were killed by the impact. Another, Duncan Edwards, lingered bravely for 15 days before joining the awful roll call. Others to die were club staff, journalists, a supporter, a travel agent and flight crew – among them Captain Rayment.
Among the lucky ones were Bobby Charlton and United manager Matt Busby, who survived despite suffering severe injuries and being given the last rites.
Sebuda, daughter of Captain James Thain, pilot of the plane carrying the busby Babes
Daily Express breaks the news of the crash 07/02/1958
Charlton played for England in the 1966 World Cup final and was later knighted. As the 60th anniversary approaches Sir Bobby, 80, and Gregg, who lives in his native Northern Ireland, are the only players on board who are still alive today.
The official cause of the crash was quickly established in Germany: the weight of ice which had been allowed to form on the wings. As the pilot in charge Captain Thain was blamed for not de-icing. However Thain knew he’d checked and there was none.
Daughter Sebuda He was convinced the real reason was the build-up of deep slush at the far end of the runway, which caused the disastrous loss of speed. It was the responsibility of the airport authorities to keep it clear.
Down the years Manchester United has faced accusations from survivors that they were forgotten.
Some players never fully recovered from their injuries or struggled to regain form. At least two later told how they were asked to vacate their club houses when it became clear they would not take to the football pitch again. Belatedly a testimonial was held in the late 1990s but for many it was a case of too little, too late.
Manchester United manager Matt Busby still on crutches, as he arrives in Manchester from Munich
Yet that was nothing compared to the treatment meted out to the pilot, who was sacked by the airline involved, BEA, and had to endure the burden of being wrongly held responsible for the deaths of the Busby Babes. It’s said that BEA even charged Thain for the loss of his captain’s hat in the crash.
He turned to poultry farming but never gave up the fight to remove pilot error as the official cause.
Thain was aided by his wife Ruby, who happened to be a scientist and used her expertise to help show that ice was not the reason. Some of her tests were carried out on a biscuit tin lid in the back garden, as well as in the freezer room of a butcher’s.
But a second inquiry in Germany in 1965 also blamed pilot error after refusing to accept any evidence from new witnesses. It wasn’t until 1969 that prime minister Harold Wilson intervened, ordering an investigation by British officials. It concluded that slush, not ice, almost certainly doomed BEA Flight 609 in Munich on a refuelling stop while carrying the team back from a successful European Cup game in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. “Blame is not to be imputed to Captain Thain,” the report stated.
The pilot hoped his exoneration would pave the way for a return to flying but by then it was the jet age and his employers simply didn’t want to know. Yet his doggedness led to better understanding of the dangers of slush and a tightening of rules.
Morrin says: “If it wasn’t for Thain’s single-mindedness, fighting so hard to clear his name for so many years, the true cause would never have been established. Without doubt he prevented another Munich. But after the war there were political reasons for not damaging relations with Germany so he stood almost alone in his fight. He was a convenient scapegoat.”
It all took a heavy toll on Thain, who served in the RAF as a pilot during the Second World War, and he died of a heart attack in 1975. His daughter Sebuda, who was seven at the time of the crash, says: “My parents tried to shield me but it was horrible to find out he was being blamed. Dad’s life was turned upside down and he lost his job so didn’t qualify for his pension.
“He simply wanted everyone to acknowledge the truth. He was a man of great fortitude and was determined to make sure he found the cause. My dad died aged 54 believing that he was the victim of a great injustice. There was a huge amount of strain and stress. He was bitter and who can blame him? He was an honest man and a fine pilot.”
To this day Germany has never overturned the incorrect findings of the two inquiries into the Munich air disaster but there’s still talk that should happen. Perhaps the 60th anniversary would be the appropriate time?
But Sebuda, who became a teacher and lives in Berkshire, doesn’t hold out much hope. “It’s all history now and I don’t think anything is going to change,” she says. “But my dad’s legacy is improvements in aircraft safety.”