The team was returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, having eliminated Red Star Belgrade to advance to the semi-finals of the competition. The flight stopped to refuel in Munich because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was beyond the "Elizabethan"-class Airspeed Ambassador's range. After refuelling, pilots James Thain and Kenneth Rayment twice abandoned take-off because of boost surging in the left engine. Fearing they would get too far behind schedule, Captain Thain rejected an overnight stay in Munich in favour of a third take-off attempt. By then, snow was falling, causing a layer of slush to form at the end of the runway. After the aircraft hit the slush, it ploughed through a fence beyond the end of the runway and the left wing was torn off after hitting a house. Fearing the aircraft might explode, Thain began evacuating passengers while Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg helped pull survivors from the wreckage.
An investigation by West German airport authorities originally blamed Thain, saying he did not de-ice the aircraft's wings, despite eyewitness statements to the contrary. It was later established that the crash was caused by the slush on the runway, which slowed the plane too much to take off. Thain was cleared in 1968, ten years after the incident.
Manchester United were trying to become the third club to win three successive English league titles; they were six points behind League leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers with 14 games to go. They also held the Charity Shield and had just advanced into their second successive European Cup semi-final. The team had not been beaten for 11 matches. The crash not only derailed their title ambitions that year but also virtually destroyed the nucleus of what promised to be one of the greatest generations of players in English football history. It took 10 years for the club to recover, with Busby rebuilding the team and winning the European Cup in 1968 with a new generation of "Babes".
In April 1955, UEFA established the European Cup, a football competition for the champion clubs of UEFA-affiliated nations, to begin in the 1955–56 season. However, the English league winners, Chelsea, were denied entry by the Football League's secretary, Alan Hardaker, who believed not participating was best for English football. The following season, the English league was won by Manchester United, managed by Matt Busby. The Football League again denied their champions entry, but Busby and his chairman, Harold Hardman, with the help of the Football Association's chairman Stanley Rous, defied the league and United became the first English team to play in Europe.
The team – known as the "Busby Babes" for their youth – reached the semi-finals, beaten there by the eventual winners, Real Madrid. Winning the First Division title again that season meant qualification for the 1957–58 tournament, and their cup run in 1956–57 meant they were one of the favourites to win. Domestic league matches were on Saturdays and European matches midweek, so, although air travel was risky, it was the only choice if United were to fulfil their league fixtures, which they would have to do if they were to avoid proving Alan Hardaker right.
After overcoming Shamrock Rovers and Dukla Prague in the preliminary and first round respectively, United were drawn with Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia for the quarter-finals. After beating them 2–1 at Old Trafford on 14 January 1958, the club was to travel to Yugoslavia for the return leg on 5 February. On the way back from Prague in the previous round, fog over England prevented the team from flying back to Manchester, so they flew to Amsterdam before taking the ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich and then the train to Manchester. The trip took its toll on the players and they drew 3–3 with Birmingham City at St Andrew's three days later.
Eager not to miss Football League fixtures, and not to have a difficult trip again, the club chartered a British European Airways plane from Manchester to Belgrade for the away leg against Red Star. The match was drawn 3–3 but it was enough to send United to the semi-finals. The takeoff from Belgrade was delayed for an hour after outside right Johnny Berry lost his passport, and the plane landed in Munich for refuelling at 13:15 GMT.