The 1958 Munich air disaster - The untold story of Capt. James Thain
23 dead and 19 injured in one of the most disastrous events in the world of football. Yes, I am talking about the infamous 1958 Munich air crash which was carrying the Manchester United football team, then a game away from creating history! The team was returning after playing an European cup game against Red Star Belgrade (then in Yugoslavia) when they had to stop at the Munich International Airport for refueling. Captain James Thain was the pilot of the Elizabethan, the aircraft carrying the Manchester United team.
After two failed attempts, as the plane was not able to reach the required speed to take off. The third and final attempt turned out to be an erroneous decision as the plane crashed into a tree after not being able to reach the speed required for take-off before the runway finished.
The first report submitted by German airport authorities
The report submitted by the German authorities had placed the complete blame on Captain Thain for the accident. They claimed to have investigated the event with a 20th century perspective. Investigators found ice on the wing, which they believed was the primary catalyst for the tragedy. The report submitted by them claimed that it was the pilot’s responsibilty to inspect the wings before the flight. They went on to say that because the ice wasn’t washed from the wings, the Elizabethan failed to touch the required air-borne speed.
The investigation team claimed, “The aircraft was covered with snow about 8cms thick, this could have been brushed aside. The ice was frozen firmly at the wings“.
The investigations later took a drastic turn when a casual snapshot, by an United fan at the terminal, showed the aircraft after the second take-off failure and there appeared to be a white area which the investigators claimed to be snow. Reports which were released in March 1959 said,“Apart from the ice, we couldn’t find any other reason which could have contributed to the air crash“.
The report also said Captain Thain was solely responsible for the air crash.
Aftermath of the Crash
Sir Matt Busby was among those who miraculously survived the crash. It was only weeks later that Busby came to know about the air crash as the doctors feared that breaking the news to him could have been detrimental to his recovery. He resumed his managerial duties exactly after three months and went on to rebuild his team with an influx of new talent like George Best and also survivors of the tragedy like Harry Greff and Bobby Charlton. One of the best players of his generation, Duncan Edwards, died in the hospital after surviving the air crash.
The man under the hammer was Captain Thain, who went from being an RAF pilot to the new villain in England. When investigators asked Thain, he said, “My personal feelings are that there must be snow on the runway, which reduced the speed of the air-craft”. Two months after the crash, the German inquiry issued a report which clearly mentioned that snow on the wings was responsible for the air crash and since Captain didn’t de-ice the plane, it was a fault on his side.
Fight for recognition and restoration of status: Captain Thain
The former RAF officer and accomplished commercial pilot, with his reputation now in tatters, resorted to farming activities to earn money. Thain was always certain that the ice on the wings didn’t cause the crash. His daughter recalls that Thain was a man of sheer optimism.
She said, “He was determined to find the real cause for the accident”.
Soon, Thain decided to launch his own investigations into the matter and find out the actual reason behind the crash. Thain believed that the real cause for the accident was based on drastic reduction of the aircraft speed from 170 Mph to 100 Mph. Aircraft researchers believe that ice on the wing couldn’t explain that loss in the speed but something else could, which Thain also believed to be the real cause of the accident - the slush of ice on the runway.
Aviation experts believed that due to the friction caused by the slush on the runway, the Elizabethan couldn’t create the necessary boost to get airborne. Eyewitness investigations also supported this theory.Then came the scientific evidence from an unlikely source, Thain’s wife.
She witnessed that massive amount of fire extinguishing chemicals sprayed on the aircraft melted the snow. With eyewitness reports and scientific evidence, a new side of the story started to build up. The resilient Germans weren’t eager to re-open the investigations. The whole case turned on its head after Britain’s most powerful politician, Harold Wilson, made a statement claiming that he believed the captain was a victim of injustice. The comments created a media frenzy.
In 1968, British investigators started their mission to find out who was really repsonsible for the 1958 Munich air disaster. They immediately found out that the photograph of the aircraft taken by the United fan didn’t show any ice. The negative of that picture showed nothing on the wings, it was basically the reflection of light from the wet surface which made the Germans believe that it was snow. The results exposed out the big blunder of the German report.
Finally, the British Government, on March 1969, eleven years after the crash, formally cleared James Thain’s name. But the stress and trauma was too much for Thain to handle and soon after the report that cleared him of the charges was released, he died.
Harry Greg, in an interview with National Geographic, claimed that he always knew that the German inquiry made Thain their scapegoat. And that he was always of the opinion that snow on the wings wasn’t responsible for the disaster.
“It was a harsh and a bitter event, the Munich air disaster not only killed 23 people with it. Make it 24, my father also virtually died in that crash” - S. Thain (James Thain’s daughter)