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Winter Hill V Munich


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Wasn;t aware of this, interesting reading.




The events we choose to mark tell us who we are



Football and the media have swollen together, removing all memory of another 1958 disaster


Ian Jack

Saturday February 9, 2008

The Guardian


Fifty years ago this month, an aircraft bound for Manchester ploughed into a field of snow and ice and 35 of its passengers died. None were professional footballers, but most, if not all, were men who worked at the same trade in the same place; they were geographically, professionally and socially connected. Some camaraderie must have existed. One imagines them joking on the plane as they came down towards the city - "By heavens, Bert, this is bumpier than an old Ford Popular" and so forth - until the morning fog and the cloud closed in and the plane obeyed what proved to be fatal instructions from the Manchester control tower and banked sharply right. One imagines a quiet anxiety then fell, followed by the kind of sights and sounds one never wants to see or hear as the plane hit Winter Hill, 220m high and an unexpected obstacle on the way to the runway in Cheshire.



Six engineers, snowbound at Winter Hill's recently built ITV transmitting station, heard a faint whoosh but attributed it to snow falling from the mast. Fifteen minutes later, the plane's co-pilot walked through the station's door with his face covered in blood. "Can you help?" he said. "There's been a crash." The engineers struggled through the snow with stretchers and found bodies everywhere. The living included the stewardess, who was still strapped into her seat, and the pilot, who lay under the fuselage clutching his severed foot to his chest. Medical help, fighting up through the snowdrifts from the Lancashire mill towns below, took two hours to arrive.


The date was February 27 1958. Three weeks earlier, on February 6, another Manchester-bound plane had crashed at Munich. At Munich, 21 of the 44 on board survived; at Winter Hill, only seven out of 42. Statistically, Winter Hill was the bigger crash. Even in terms of those hard-to-quantify elements grief and loss, it probably had deeper repercussions: it directly affected more families and a community more tightly knit than Manchester or even the followers of Manchester United. The dead on Winter Hill were men in the motor trade from the Isle of Man, off on a day trip to see the Exide Battery factory in Clifton, Manchester. On the Isle of Man, Sir Joseph Qualtrough, the Speaker of the House of Keys, said the day would be "long remembered on the island as Black Thursday".


Perhaps in Douglas and Ramsey it still is, but nowhere else. Winter Hill has become just one of three disasters that befell aircraft approaching Manchester airport in the decade after 1957, killing a total of 129 people, including two on the ground. The public attention paid to their anniversaries is scant. No ceremonies are televised, no special supplements published, no national silences observed, in no chapel does a public personality light candles to the dead as Gary Neville did this week at Old Trafford to a tinny rendering of Ave Maria. Probably, this is as it should be. There are far too many of the dead in general to remember - a perpetual vale of sorrow would be unbearable - and the Manchester United crash had particular qualities that marked it out as a more publicly resonating tragedy: eight young players from England's most successful post-war football team died, including one held to be of exceptional promise. But 50 years on, having watched Bobby Charlton and Harry Gregg recall that day on repeated television interviews, I find it odd that I now know the names of Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Eddie Colman better than I do of a couple of great-uncles killed on the Somme. In 1958, it was the other way around.


I have no memories of Munich. My family must have read about in the Manchester Guardian - we had no television and the radio was switched on mainly for The Goon Show. But as a family we were immune to football, a far easier immunity to preserve then than now because all it took was an abstinence from one page in the paper. If Munich was discussed it would have been in terms of the dangers of air travel. That's how I remember Winter Hill around the tea table three weeks later: flying was a risky business and Winter Hill (which we knew, having picnicked there) a lonely place. Alone of my family, I had actually flown - six months before in a Dakota on a school trip to Switzerland, the plane buffeted by fierce headwinds and jumping around under cloud so low that I could almost count the railway sleepers on the lines through France. Everyone was sick. For a time this gave me a special interest in air crashes, until other obsessions and enthusiasms replaced it. Newspapers made forgetting easier.


To track the progress of the Munich and Winter Hill crashes through the pages of the Manchester Guardian (shorn of its fuller title the next year) is to see how just how quickly sensational events, stuffed with "human interest", could sink beneath the surface of the news. In the Guardian, Munich ran as the big story on the front page for two days (though it never swamped all of it) and made its final downpage appearance there on February 10. Thereafter, other things claimed the paper's front-page interest: the Rochdale byelection, US-Soviet summit talks, Vivian Fuchs crossing the Antarctic. Sometimes, just before the pages advertising vacancies for Scientists, Engineers, Draughtsmen and Mechanics, you can catch the whiff of it in a sports report. "The vast roar which lapped the Manchester United players round with a sympathy close to affection set the game at once in an emotional atmosphere which often outweighed technical considerations," wrote the correspondent at the FA Cup game with West Bromwich Albion on March 2.


Otherwise nothing, and the same with Winter Hill; a day on the front page and a rebirth only for the inquest and the public inquiry. No Guardian writer was sent to the Isle of Man, just as none caught a train to interview Edwards' parents. That would have been left to the populars, to the Mirror, Mail and Express. Serious newspapers and the BBC still held to the view that news should be factual, formal and informative.


Anniversaries say as much about the present as the past. Both football and the media have swollen enormously: the Guardian devoted about 18 column inches to the West Bromwich tie in 1958 and about 290 to Wednesday's friendly international with Switzerland. At Christmas, women were "harvested" from the cosmetic counters at select department stores to attend Manchester United parties. And this week the Premier League announced plans to play some games abroad - Dubai, Singapore - to add £5m a game to their revenues. In these surroundings, the Munich commemoration is a piece of necessary iconography, like nailing up a picture of a pious old saint in a decadent church. Winter Hill left behind no similar religious belief.

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A tragic accident which must have had a devastating effect on the island.


The story is not completely accurate though. It was not a wrong instruction from Manchester air traffic control the caused the crash. They had given the correct instruction to fly direct to the airfield when the aircraft would have been overhead the Southport area. The First Officer mistuned the radio compass (NDB in modern speak) to the Oldham beacon instead of the Ringway beacon as it was then. As the Captain was not in the flight deck this was not spotted and the aircraft flew on a more northerly track hitting Winter Hill in the fog. If the FO hadn't made this mistake or had realised it from the the unexpected heading or the wrong morse code "ident" of the beacon it would never have happened. It would never have happened anyway if they hadn't been so low. Winter Hill mast is over 2300' above sea level so the aircraft should have been at a minimum height of 1000' above this. Unfortunately it was considerably lower. There is a memorial to this accident on the transmitter building.


Its very easy to be wise after the event of course .

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