The 6th February 1958, would mark a tragedy well noted in history. It was ingrained in the lives of football fans worldwide and devastated the people in the city of Manchester, UK. The Manchester United football team were at an all-time high and had not been beaten in the last eleven matches. The team had made previous trips abroad using ferries and trains, but found this had an effect on their performance. The club decided to charter an aircraft from British European Airways, for their trip to play against Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup.
BEA flight 609 was operated by G-ALZU, an ‘Elizabethan class’ Airspeed Ambassador named ‘Lord Burghley’. The pilot in command was Cpt. James Thain and the co-pilot was Cpt. Kenneth Rayment. Bill Rodgers was the radio officer onboard. The flight attendants that day were Margaret Bellis, Rosemary Cheverton and William (Tommy) Cable, who was the chief flight attendant.
Prior to trip
The previous flight from Manchester to Belgrade was smooth with no issues. Rosemary, who was just 25 and the youngest crew member, was excited to be working on the trip but shy about working with such a famous football team. Margaret was onboard the flights by chance, as she was one of few who had the correct visa. Tommy was leading the team that day. Usually, the aircraft had two flight attendants but this was a special charter flight with a bar, requiring an extra crew member.
The match went well in Belgrade, propelling Manchester United or the ‘Busby Babes’ into the semi-finals. There were 38 passengers onboard including the football team, their manager, supporters, journalists and diplomatic staff. On the flight from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the passengers played cards, talked about the news and some slept, tired after the match. Rosemary described the team as ‘well-behaved young men’.
6th February, Munich
The aircraft was scheduled to refuel in a snowy Munich-Riem airport, in West Germany and the jovial team fired snowballs at the aircraft refuellers before heading to the airport lounge. Take-off was delayed by one hour due to one of the football team losing his passport. Captain Thain had flown the leg from Belgrade and swapped to the right seat on the ground, so that Cpt. Rayment would fly the leg back to Manchester. Rosemary was sitting in the cockpit jump seat, Tommy was seated at the rear and Margaret was seated in the forward galley.
On the first two attempted take-offs, there was a problem with the boost surging in the left engine. Upon acceleration, the engine sounded odd and take-off was aborted. Captain Thain contacted the station engineer who reported that it was a common problem for the engines to over-accelerate on the aircraft type. He suggested on take-off to open the throttle more slowly. This would mean the aircraft having to take off further down the runway than usual. It was snowing heavily and the passengers returned to the airport lounge. The aircraft did not require de-icing, as anti-icing on the wings had been used the previous flight and Cpt. Thain had observed snow melting on the wings during his walk around.
Just 15 minutes later, the passengers reboarded the flight. A layover due to weather was rejected as everyone was keen to get back to Manchester, after all the delays. Rosemary was not concerned and had all faith in the pilots as they were very experienced and ex-Royal Air Force. Some of the passengers were feeling anxious and moved to seats in the rear of the aircraft, feeling it was safer. One of the diplomatic staff was also nervous, Tommy the chief flight attendant, saw him and offered to swap his jump seat with him.
There was slush at the end of the runway, unbeknownst to the pilots. The aircraft hit the slush before lifting off and plunged off the runway and through a fence. The left wing hit a house and tore it off the fuselage. The tail broke off and impacted a barn with a fuel truck inside, which exploded. Rosemary couldn’t see outside but felt the two impacts. The jolt of the aircraft stopping had forced her out of her seat and her shoes fell off. Everything went black and quiet. Captain Thain saw flames in the cockpit and ordered an evacuation.
Rosemary went into the galley, to find Margaret climbing out of a blown-out emergency window. Margaret helped her climb out of the aircraft. The radio officer, Bill followed. Captain Rayment was trapped by his seat and could not get out, he told his colleague to leave him and get out. Captain Thain saw fire under the wings and fearing that the aircraft would explode, told everyone to get away from the aircraft. He then went back into the aircraft with Bill and found two fire extinguishers to try and distinguish the fire.
Margaret returned to the wreckage trying to help anyone else to escape. Rosemary looked around the crushed wreckage in disbelief. She was running around in the snow trying to help anyone. Bodies were scattered in the snow, some still strapped in their seats, ejected from the fuselage. She had been joking with one of the passengers previously, who had teased her about her accent. She saw him badly injured on the ground and put her coat around him. The passenger who swapped seats with crew member Tommy, saw him lifeless in the snow, only recognized by his uniform.
Meanwhile, Harry Gregg the goalkeeper for the football team pulled survivors from the wreckage. He saved two of his teammates Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, who were thrown from the aircraft, but still strapped in their seats. He also pulled a woman and her baby from the wreckage handing the baby to Rosemary.
Of the 44 total onboard, 20 people died at the scene and 3 died later at the hospital. There were 21 survivors. Captain Rayment died 3 weeks after the accident from his injuries. Eight of the Manchester United ‘Busby Babes’ had perished, half of the team wiped out.
Matt Busby, the team’s manager and survivor (although being very badly injured) revived the Manchester United football team. He rebuilt the team and took them on to win the European Cup in 1968. Two of the players, didn’t play again and one could not recover enough to play. Three recovered enough to be able to play for the team again.
Eighteen months after the incident, Rosemary emigrated to the US and worked for the airlines. Captain Thain was blamed for the accident by the German authorities, for not de-icing the aircraft wings. This was overturned ten years later in 1968. It was found that the slush on the runway had slowed the aircraft, so it was unable to take-off.
“The air hostesses were magnificent. One was running about without her shoes in the snow but didn’t seem to notice her freezing feet.”
– Bill Foulkes, defender Manchester United