Munich crash pilot was denied justice to spare German feelings

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Civil servants scuppered attempts to hold a fresh inquiry into the 1958 Munich air disaster despite agreeing it would clear the pilot blamed for the crash that killed eight members of the Manchester United team.

Civil servants scuppered attempts to hold a fresh inquiry into the 1958 Munich air disaster despite agreeing it would clear the pilot blamed for the crash that killed eight members of the Manchester United team.

Documents at the National Archives in Kew, west London, show they believed co-pilot Captain James Thain was correct in claiming that slush on the runway, rather than his negligence in failing to check the wings of the BEA Ambassador for ice, was the main cause of the tragedy.

But an attempt by supporters of the pilot, including his union, to clear his name in 1967 with a British investigation into new evidence failed after officials, including the ambassador to Bonn, warned that such a move would cause a damaging diplomatic row with Germany. Board of Trade papers show that Harold Wilson, then prime minister, believed Captain Thain was likely to be innocent. A memo shows Mr Wilson said the pilot "has been unjustly treated since that day".

The aircraft was carrying the Busby Babes, named after their manager Sir Matt Busby, back from a European Cup tie against Red Star Belgrade. They had been widely expected to conquer all in European and domestic competition that year.

The initial German investigation decided frozen snow on the propeller and wings was the "decisive cause". The flight, G-ALZU, had landed at Riem for a two-hour refuelling on a bitterly cold February night. The aircraft made two attempts to take off and both pilots noticed pressure in the engines had exceeded safety limits. On the third attempt, the plane drastically slowed on the final third of the runway. Captain Gordon Rayment, was heard to say, "We won't make it", then they ploughed through the perimeter fence and collided with a house, bursting into flames.

The disaster claimed 23 lives, including Duncan Edwards and Tommy Taylor, among several England players tipped for World Cup success that year.

The German investigation heaped opprobrium on Captain Thain and claimed he had not inspected the wings for ice. A British investigation in 1960 decided he "ought to have checked the wings for ice but did not". Later, tests by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in Hampshire found that the cause of the crash was nearly an inch of slush on the final third of the runway which caused G-ALZU to slow from a take-off speed to 117 knots to a fatal 105 knots.