James Thain : The Man Who Killed the Busby Babes

On February 6, 1958, football world endured the heaviest loss as 23 lives were lost when a British European Airways Flight 609 which was carrying the Manchester United team, journalists and fans crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem Airport. Amongst the 21 survivors [1] from the crash, there was one James Thain, “The man who killed the Busby Babes”. On the 60th anniversary of that fateful night, Subhajit Sengupta at Goalden Times explains how a man, tagged as the killer of a nation’s dream, inspired himself to understand the values of human life.

During the final phase of researching his book “The Team That Wouldn’t Die” in 1974, British journalist John Roberts lined up an interview with former British aviator James Thain at his residence at Hayley Green Farm in Berkshire. After all what he had been through it was quite surprising for John to find that the 53-year-old man still possessed his thin moustache in a clean shaved face, barrel shaped chest and a beefy physique. John was in the need of some core inputs that were still missing from his book so he went to the best possible option for that. At first captain Thain was understandably reluctant but then the deal was made in exchange for a bottle of fine scotch. There were too many books, documentaries, journals about the incident but none was as perfect as John Roberts’s book. The reason was simple. None had the valuable input of Captain James Thain, the man who was pilot in command of the Airspeed AS.57 Ambassador that was carrying the “Busby Babes” from Yugoslavia via Munich, the man who miraculously survived the crash that ended the journey of the “Busby Babes” in the most brutal way, the man who for most back at that time, should have died.

60 years since that fateful chilly night in Munich-Riem airport, “Busby Babes” became immortal; they have been mentioned countless number of times in books, journals, movies, documentaries but there’s hardly anything that mentioned James Thain. On the contrary he was cursed, bullied and abandoned. Did he deserve it? Certainly not. Probably no one had the urge to analyse what he really had been through during the last phase of his life or the fight that he had to put up to prove his innocence because it didn’t matter much in the context of the loss. His fight remained inglorious as ever.

So what happened to James Thain after that night? Was it just another lawsuit that he had to fight against for a prolonged time? I can assure you that it was much more than that. In order to understand James Thain’s battle for justice, one must look into the evolution of Manchester United FC.

According to Talksport (a website that reports football club rankings based on certain criteria), Manchester United is the third most popular football club in the world. The journey to reach this peak of popularity started more than five decades after the club’s inception and Matt Busby was the fulcrum of it. The club’s journey can be precisely divided into two phases that is pre and post Matt Busby era. During the early years of 1900, Manchester United was just another local football club from England with high ambitions and local followers. It was after the appointment of Matt Busby that the club achieved its global footprint. His pioneering vision shaped the club’s present and future. Back in those days, if a manager wanted to build a team, he would simply buy established players from other clubs and hope that they would simply fit in. Matt Busby went against the idea and built a team from the scratch with home-grown players. Roger Byrne, Jackie Blanchflower, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman, Billy Whelan, Dennis Viollet, David Pegg, Geoff Bent, Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton – a chunk of lads with an average age of 19 years were handpicked by Matt Busby and soon they found themselves in the first team amongst the big boys. Matt Busby gradually replaced his first team seniors with his young guns; the decision though faced much criticism from the local fans. Back then the idea was like football is a tough men’s game and one must be at least 25 years old to find his feet in the game. Matt Busby wanted to create history; he took the risk and played his cards. The result astonished everyone. The babes became the champions of England consecutively in 1955/56 and 1956/57 season. Football was no longer a game of physicality in England. Tactical shrewdness and skilful football suppressed the established conception about the game. Football became truly beautiful. The Busby Babes’ journey started to build more around compassion than trophy. Everyone loved their next-door kid bossing the pitch amongst the men and teasing them with their eye catching sensational football skill. The Busby Babes became the first harmless drug in England that everyone got addicted to. As Harry Gregg, one of the “Babes” who had survived the crash later said in an interview: “Was Manchester United was the best team in the world? May be. Was Manchester United the best team in the Europe? Probably but it was surely the most loved team in the world.[2]

Busby Babes
Busby babes Johnny Berry, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, Roger Byrne and Dennis Viollet jumping in the air.
[Source – Vintage Photos]

Matt Busby’s ambition though was higher than just to become the champions of English football. He wanted to dominate Europe with his babes. For Busby, his babes were not babes anymore. It reflected in his statement “The marks of the nursery cradle were on them, but they did not show[3]. Matt Busby’s Manchester United became the first English team to enter the European Cup in the 1956/57 edition. They narrowly lost to Real Madrid in the semi-finals but by then everyone became aware of the English underage powerhouse. The paths of the Busby Babes and James Thain crossed in the next season when the team flew to Belgrade for their European Cup quarter-final clash against Red Star Belgrade.

By the start of February, 1958, Manchester United was six points behind the English league leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers with fourteen games to go. Matt Busby’s team was unbeaten in eleven matches in all competition and was scheduled to play Wolves on February 8 in the league. This was Matt Busby’s chance to close the gap and reach his dream to win consecutive third English league trophy but his team was scheduled to play an all-important quarter-final second leg clash against Red Star Belgrade on their home turf. In order to save time and fatigue, United management opted for a chartered plane instead of a long train journey. James Thain and Kenneth Rayment were appointed to fly them to Belgrade and take them back to Manchester within the scheduled time frame. Thain and Rayment were former friends from their Royal Air Force (RAF) days as they both started their career in the RAF and later both retired from there to join British European Airways (BEA). Despite Rayment having more experience of flying the Elizabethan class Airspeed Ambassador; Thain was named the captain in charge. Rayment, who had just recovered from a hernia operation, was very keen to fly the aircraft himself. “When I arrived to collect the charter plane, Ken was there” Thain recalled. “I said, ‘Right, I’ll take her to Belgrade and you can bring her back’. I must emphasize that we were both qualified pilots and both captains, in fact Ken had more flying time in Elizabethans than I had.[4]

Thain flew the team to the Belgrade and on the return journey – by this time Busby Babes had reached the semi-finals of the European Cup – it was Rayment’s turn to fly the aircraft. The plane took off from Belgrade with 44 passengers on board and took a refuelling stop at the Munich-Riem Airport. At 14:19 GMT, the control tower at Munich was told that the plane was ready to take off. They were given the clearance which would expire at 14:31. Rayment had to abandon the first attempt to take-off after Thain noticed the port boost pressure gauge fluctuating when the plane reached full power and the engine was making odd sounds during the acceleration. The second attempt was made just three minutes later, but had to call off again 40 seconds later as the engines were running on an over-rich mixture, causing them to over-accelerate which was a common problem for the Elizabethan. After the second failed attempt, Thain asked the passengers to take a short break at the airport lounge as he would investigate the engine glitch and make the flight ready to fly shortly. By then, it had started to snow heavily, and it looked unlikely that the plane would be making the return journey that day. As the team reached the lounge for a cup of coffee, Duncan Edwards sent a telegram to his landlady in Manchester stating “All flights cancelled, flying tomorrow. Duncan.[5]

Busby Babes
The players of Manchester United FC line up on the pitch at Belgrade before their European Cup quarter final match against Yugoslav side, Red Star Belgrade. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Thain and Rayment had a discussion with the station engineer Bill Black about the problem and Black suggested to hold their journey overnight but with United eyeing a crucial league fixture only a day after, staying back wasn’t an option for the crew. Thain suggested opening the throttle even more slowly should suffice, which would mean that the plane would not achieve take-off velocity until further down the runway and as the runway was almost two kilometres long, he believed this would not be a problem.

Without further delay, Thain called all the passengers back to the plane. They were anxious, scared and few of them had had a second thought before boarding the plane again. Vera Lukić, wife of a Yugoslavian diplomat, did not want to board the plane again. She was understandably nervous as she had her baby daughter, Vesna with her and was pregnant with another baby boy but then Harry Gregg came forward to assure her it was all safe to travel now. Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, Mark Jones, Eddie Colman and Frank Swift were all scared too. They all changed their seats and moved to the back of the plane believing that they would survive if the plane crashes.

Thain and Rayment got the plane moving again at 14:56. At 14:59, they reached the runway holding point, where they received clearance to line up and be ready for take-off. On the runway, they made a final cockpit check-up and at 15:02; they were told their take-off clearance would expire at 15:04. They agreed to attempt the take-off and at 15:03, they informed the control tower that they were ready to go.

Rayment moved the throttle forward slowly and released the brakes; the plane began to accelerate, and radio officer Bill Rodgers radioed the control tower with the message “Zulu Uniform rolling”. The plane threw up slush as it gathered speed, and Thain called out the plane’s velocity in 10-knot increments. At 85 knots, the port engine began to surge again, and he pulled back marginally on the port throttle before pushing it forward again. Once the plane reached 117 knots, Rodgers announced “V1”, at which it was no longer safe to abort take-off, and moments later Rayment heard the call of “V2” (119 knots), the minimum velocity required to get off the ground. Thain expected the speed to rise, but it fluctuated around 117 knots before suddenly dropping to 112 knots, and then to fatal 105 knots.

“…Suddenly Ken shouted, ‘Christ! We won’t make it!’ Until then I had been looking at the instruments. When Ken shouted I looked up and could see a lot of snow and a house and a tree right in the path of the aircraft.

“I took my left hand from behind the throttle levers and banged them, but they were fully forward. I think Ken was pulling the control column back. He asked for the undercarriage to be lifted and I selected ‘up’.

“Then I put my hands out in front of me and gripped the ledge and peered over the edge. It seemed that we were turning to starboard and I was convinced we could not get between the house and the tree. I put my head down and waited for the impact of the crash.

“The aircraft went through a fence and crossed a road and the port wing hit the house. The wing and part of the tail were torn off and the house caught fire.

“As the aircraft spun, a tree just further on than the house came through the port side of the flight deck where Ken was sitting. The starboard side of the fuselage hit a wooden hut, where there was a truck filled with tires and fuel. This exploded.

“We were spinning and then the aircraft stopped. There was a hellish noise. And then complete silence.[6] – Thain recollected from his horrible memories.

It was a national disaster. The tragedy took 23 lives amongst which eight were “Babes”. The city of Manchester was shell shocked, so was the rest of the world. There were no eyes left dry at the airport when the bodies of their next-door kids returned inside coffins. The whole world was mourning and everyone was in search of someone to point their finger to and so James Thain became the scapegoat. The first investigation report from the German authorities contributed to the public perception significantly. The report claimed “The aircraft was covered with snow about 8 centimeters thick; this could have been brushed aside. The ice was frozen firmly at the wings[6] and with that they had placed the complete blame on Thain. In support of this claim they also produced a casual snapshot taken by a United fan at the terminal that showed the aircraft after the second take-off failure and there appeared to be a white patch on the aircraft which the investigators claimed was snow.

James Thain saw the world in two colours, black and white. There were no shades of grey for him. He emphatically did not accept the blame rather started his fight for the truth, to prove his innocence. The next blow came on the Christmas morning of 1960. Thain was notified of his dismissal from BEA for a breach of their regulations in that he had changed seats with his first officer, Captain Kenneth Rayment. It was permissible for the captain to allow his first officer to fly the aircraft provided the first officer was fully qualified. The first officer could act as “pilot in charge” and fly the plane while the captain took the role of co-pilot, but the captain remains in command. However, BEA forbade the captain and first officer to change seats hence the termination from service. In order to make both ends meet, Thain’s wife had to find a new job. Their daughter was only seven years old when the incident happened and now she had become a victim of regular bullying. “I was bullied and tormented at school over dad’s involvement with Munich. It was very upsetting and difficult to avoid. Children can be very cruel.”[8] – she recalled. Thain refused to give up though. He decided to launch his own investigation. The situation got worsened when British Ambassador tried to suppress the flow of the investigation as he feared that it would severely affect the diplomatic row between the two countries. At a secret meeting of ministers in April 1969, the attorney general, Sir Elwyn Jones, said that “a report which made an attack on the German inquiry would be an unhappy outcome[12]. The Foreign Office minister, Lord Chalfont, cautioned that “we could not connive at the suppression of evidence even if it meant some damage to our relations with Bonn.[13] James Thain’s repeated claims for justice remained unheard for years until British Prime Minister Harold Wilson commented that he believed that Thain “has been unjustly treated since that day[9]. With the help of aviation experts, Thain pointed out the fact that ice on the wings of the aircraft could not possibly affect the reduction of speed in such manner. Eyewitness’ claims also supported the theory. The investigation took a decisive turn with James Thain’s wife’s observation. She witnessed that massive amount of fire extinguishing chemicals sprayed on the aircraft melted the snow. With scientific evidences of the fact, a new side of the story started revealing itself. The resilient Germans did not want to re-open the case files but Harold Wilson made sure that the fact checking would be done under the lights once again and justice would be served to those who deserve it.

In 1968, British investigators started their mission to find out the real cause behind the 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 German investigators believe, it was snow. The results exposed the big blunder of the German report. The report stated that ice on the wings of the aircraft was the sole reason for the crash. It was the captain’s duty to clear it off the wings before the final call for the take off. But on re-investigation it appeared that the thick slush on the runway created excessive friction which contributed to the loss of velocity that prevented the take off. It was the duty of the airport authority to clear the runway which they failed to do. In March 1969, eleven years after the crash, the British Government formally cleared James Thain’s name.

It is astonishing to find the similarities between Manchester United and James Thain.

When the makeshift Manchester United team beat Sheffield Wednesday just thirteen days after the disaster, United’s chairman Harold Hardman announced “Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded, we believe that great days are not done for us… Manchester United will rise again.[10]

While Thain refused to accept the findings from the German enquiry just two weeks after the crash.

It took Matt Busby a full decade to rebuild his squad which went on to win the European Cup in 1968.

On the other hand, Thain had to fight for eleven years to prove his innocence over the matter that demolished his life.

James Thain’s character can be described by the words James Redfield, an American author once wrote about Hector, the prince of Troy “…a hero ready to die for the precious imperfections of ordinary life.[10] Thain performed his duty till the moment he was stripped off his job. After miraculously surviving the crash, with all his injury, he went on to rescue the passengers. He and his family had to fight for a decade against the angry public reaction, curses, and abandons without retaliation, believing that one day truth will come out. If Manchester United is the team that made us “believe” in the field of football then James Thain is the character that made us understand the virtues of life. He was virtually tagged as the enemy of the state and yet stood his ground for what was right. He had set an example of glorifying the core values of human life. And yet, even after 60 years of the Munich tragedy, James Thain is far from the respect he always deserved.

On this February 6, when we will mourn all those great souls lost 60 years ago in that horrible plane crash; let us light a candle for James Thain. Let us pay the respect to that great soul that taught us the values of human life. Oh, James! Sorry for letting you fight all alone. Sorry for cursing you all this while. May you find peace in your sleep and shower your wisdom and courage upon us.