On February 6th 1958, a BEA Airspeed AS-57 Ambassador skidded upon take-off at Munch Riem Airport. The aircraft skidded into a nearby building, burst into flames, and killed 23 passengers on board.
The tragedy took the lives of a group of young men who were seen as the personal friends of millions around the world – the ‘Busby Babes.’ Football team Manchester United were set to become the first English club to lift the new European Cup in 1958.
They were also set on a course for a treble as they were still well placed in the league and FA cup. However, the tragedy, which would be remembered in the club’s history for years to come, rendered those dreams impossible.
Under the guidance of Scottish manager Matt Busby, the team was travelling back from Yugoslavia after an impressive 3-3 draw, meaning they would progress to the semi-finals of the competition 5-4 on aggregate.
Following their celebrations at the British embassy in Belgrade, the team left for Manchester the following day. The team’s chartered plane made a routine stop in Munich to refuel, but the area quickly got shrouded in snow and low cloud. The sever weather did not appear to worry the players as they enjoyed a snowball fight outside the airport terminal before boarding the aircraft.
The first signs came during take-off when a strange noise from the engine forced the captain and co-captain to abort the attempt. A second attempt also prompted the same result. Many of the group expected to spend a night in Germany but Busby and the club were under certain pressures to get back that night.
With many players uneasy about anther attempt, they decided to attempt a third time. Four players, Mark Jones, Tommy Taylor, Eddie Colman and Duncan Edwards even moved to the back of the plane as they believed they would be safer if the worst happened.
A third attempt was made just after 3pm on a runway which was covered in snow and slush. This time, however, the aircraft failed to gain height as it tried to lift off and crashed through a fence at the perimeter of the airfield and into a building. It burst into flames as it come to a half next to a nearby fuel silo.
Seven players died at the scene, including Coleman, Taylor and Jones who had swapped seats, along with the plane’s co-pilot and journalists travelling with the team. Former goalkeeper Frank Swift also died in the crash. Duncan Edwards, regarded as one of the greatest players in the game at the time, passed away in hospital two weeks later. Johnny Berry and Jackie Blanchflower were so severely injured they would never take to the field again.
Crowds gathered outside Old Trafford back in Manchester, awaiting information about the crash, with news spreading all around the world. Despite losing more than half of their players in the crash, Man Utd were determined to continue. With Busby recovering in the hospital, the job of rebuilding the side fell to his assistant Jimmy Murphy, who had been away on duty at the time.
Trying to attend as many funerals as he possibly could and assisting the injured, Murphy set to recruiting a whole team. His newly assembled team ran out at a packed Old Trafford in an FA cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday.
The disaster took its toll, with united only winning one more league game that season. In the FA cup however, Jimmy incredibly managed to take his team to a Wembley final against Bolton Wanderers.
To this day, February 6th 1958 remains the darkest hour in the club’s long history. It is rightfully remembered each year on the anniversary of the tragedy, in remembrance of the beloved players and friends of the club who lost their lives.