Did Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet Switch Seats With Tommy Taylor and David Pegg Right Before the “Munich Air Disaster”?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about baseball and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the soccer/football urban legends featured so far.

SOCCER/FOOTBALL URBAN LEGEND: Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet switched seats with Tommy Taylor and David Pegg right before the “Munich air disaster”.

Whenever a famous tragic crash occurs, whether it be a boat sinking or a plane crashing, you’ll begin to hear stories of “Person X was almost on that boat/plane but he/she couldn’t go at the last minute.”

For instance, Waylon Jennings was the only person who gave up a spot on the plane that later crashed, killing Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. However, over the years, many a story has been told about someone who was meant to be on the flight but who gave up their seat.

Well, in the case of the great Munich Air Disaster of 1958, there really was a case like that. Sort of.

In 1957, Manchester United became the first English football team to enter into the recently formed European Cup tournament (formed by the Union of European Football Associations), which consisted of the top teams from each country’s football team.

In 1958, Manchester was back in the European Cup tournament, and was one of the top contenders for the title.

They faced Yugoslavia’s team in a home and away match-up. Manchester defeated them in the first game (competed in Manchester) at the end of January, but then had to face them in Yugoslavia on February 5th. That game was a draw, 3-3, but Manchester still managed to advance to the semi-finals.

Manchester had had a hard time getting back home after their last trip to Europe in the earlier rounds of the tournament, so this time around, they chartered an airplane.

Well, the day after their match, they took off from Belgrade in their Airspeed Ambassador plane. It had to land in Munich to re-fuel. The pilots tried two attempts at taking off, but there was a problem with the fuel supply – it was over-accelerating the engines, making it seem like the engines would not work. So each time, they backed off and did not actually take off.

Here’s the plane in Munich before take-off…

After the second try, they actually had the 44 passengers (members of the team, the team’s staff plus reporters and team boosters) get off the plane.

During this time, it also began snowing in Munich, so it appeared as though they just weren’t going to try and just stay in Munich that day and night and try again the next day.

Duncan Edwards even telegraphed to his landlady, telling her they wouldn’t be in that day.

The pilot, though, wouldn’t give up. He wanted to stay relatively on schedule, so he had the passengers re-board. He was going to try something a little different – they had already opened the throttle on the plane slowly (to avoid over-accelerating the engine), but it did not work. However, since the runway at Munich was quite long, if they backed up and used all of the runway, they could open the throttle even slower and they’d have the time to get things going well before they ran out of runway.

So the passengers got back on to the plane just fifteen minutes after getting off.

As you might imagine, this was a pretty frightening situation for the passengers. A number of people tried to move to the back of the plane, figuring it would be safer there. Teammates Tommy Taylor and David Pegg did so. However, contrary to legend, they did not switch with their fellow teammates, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet. Instead, what happened was that Charlton and Viollet just decided not to move their seats unlike many of their teammates.

As Charlton later recalled:

Some players had changed seats, moved to places which they considered safer, but doing that never occurred to me or my companion on the leg from Belgrade, Dennis Viollet.

Tragically, however, there was a great deal of slush on the runway (unbeknown to the pilots), and as a result, it totally threw off all their acceleration readings (as the slush retarded the acceleration of the plane itself, while having no effect on the engines), and a result, they were not prepared to take off when they reached the end of the runway. The plane ended up skidding off the runway and through a barrier and across a road and into a nearby house (luckily, the woman and her three children in the house somehow managed to make it out alive). The left side of the plane hit into a wooden hut where a fully fueled truck was – the explosion killed 21 people instantly.

Among the people killed instantly were basically everyone at the back of the plane, including Taylor and Pegg.

Charlton and Viollet were knocked unconscious, but they survived.

Here’s Charlton recovering from the crash (and a few weeks later, entertaining some local children)…

They were among the twenty survivors of the accident (three survivors of the crash itself succumbed to their injuries in the days following the crash).

The team lost eight players, including Duncan Edwards, one of the best players of the decade.

The team regrouped, though, through manager Matt Busby (who survived the crash) and ten years later, Manchester United (led by team captain Bobby Charlton) returned and won the European Cup. Here’s Charlton carrying the Cup (Charlton scored twice in the Final).

The win was certainly achieved in memory of their lost friends.

But as to whether they actually switched seats? That legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

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