History

Pilot Who Was Sucked Out of a Plane Window

On June 10, 1990, something happened on British Airways Flight 5390 that thousands of people fear every single day. The plane began to fall out of the sky because the windshield had become dislodged from the plane.

The captain was nearly sucked out of the plane.

Prior to the flight, the maintenance team at the Birmingham airport installed a new windshield on the aircraft. Since the plane was scheduled to depart soon, the maintenance team worked expeditiously. The plane was able to take off at its scheduled time of 8:20 local time.

The captain for the flight was Timothy Lancaster, a 42-year-old pilot who had over 11000 flight hours logged, including 1075 hours with the BAC One-Eleven model aircraft he was flying that day. His co-pilot, Alastair Atchison, was a 39-year-old pilot with 7500 flight hours and 1100 hours with the BAC One-Eleven.

A re-creation of the event carried out by Discovery

Tragedy Strikes

It was a routine flight for the first twenty minutes. Atchison successfully got the plane in the air. He then passed the controls to Lancaster. Both pilots loosed their harnesses and settled in for their short, few-hour flight.

The four crew members prepared refreshments for the 81 passengers on the flight. The flight attendant Nigel Ogden offered the pilots a cup of tea. As Ogden prepared to exit the cockpit, he was surprised by a loud banging noise.

The door was ripped from his hand and its hinges. The left windshield detached from the front of the plane. This filled the cockpit with condensation and depressurized the cabin.

A Split-Second Save

As flight papers and other debris began swirling around the plane, Ogden noticed that Captain Lancaster was no longer in his seat. Instead, he had been sucked out of the window.

His legs had caught on the flight controls. His torso was bouncing off the outside of the plane, forming a U-shape around the frame of the window. Ogden leaped across the cabin and grabbed him around the waist to keep him from fully being ejected.

In the moment, it was to save the life of a coworker. But it ultimately was also the safest decision to save everyone. Had Lancaster’s body fully exited the plane, his body may have impacted one of the engines or another component of the plane and ensured the entire aircraft would go down.

Keeping the Captain Safe

The chaos had led to the autopilot turning off. The plane was quickly descending because the cabin door, which had been ripped off in the blast, was pushed against the throttle controls.

Atchison removed the door and got the plane to a safe altitude. The plane was not supplied with oxygen to support the entire flight where the air was so thin. As he radioed for help, he was unable to hear the response from Air Traffic Control due to the volume of the wind in the cabin.

This delayed their ability to implement an emergency landing, which left Lancaster slowly creeping out the window. He was unconscious, bouncing off the exterior of the plane. There was blood seeping from his nose and ears.

Ogden was beginning to experience fatigue and frostbite from the constant flow of air. Two other members of the crew were able to remove Lancaster’s feet from the controls and get a firm grasp on him, letting Ogden step away.

The Aftermath: a view of the missing window and blood from the pilot

Recovering from Disaster

Just under half an hour after takeoff, Flight 5390 was able to make an emergency landing at Southampton Airport. This was an impressive feat considering the chaos around Atchison in the cockpit.

Lancaster survived the experience with a long list of injuries: frostbite, bruising, shock, and multiple fractured bones. Ogden had frostbite and a dislocated shoulder. He would later suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from the event.

As the investigation into the accident began, the police were able to locate the missing window in Cholsey, Oxfordshire. It was found 80 miles from Birmingham airport and 60 miles from their landing location.

Alongside the window, they were able to locate nearly all of the 90 screws that were used to secure the window to the fuselage. Investigators found that the bolts used to secure the window were all too small, either in diameter or length. This meant the maintenance team from the day before was to blame.

When the plane reached a high enough altitude, the pressure inside the cabin was greater than the pressure outside, launching the window out since it was secured from the outside. It is more common now to have these kinds of windows secured from the inside so that the cabin pressure helps keep the window in place.

Investigators found that the employee who installed the panel had failed to follow British Airways policy. They found both the policies and the management at fault as well.

The plane was repaired and returned to service where it flew until it was scrapped in 2002. Lancaster returned to piloting 5 months later, but soon left British Airways. He continued to pilot until eventually retiring in 2008.

Atchison left British Airways shortly after the incident as well and continued to pilot until 2015. Ogden suffered from PTSD from the event and left the job in 2001. Ogden and crew member Susan Gibbins both also received the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air for rescuing Lancaster. Atchison won a Polaris award for outstanding airmanship for landing the plane during the tragic events.

References

Sweeney, Lucy. “Forget delays and lost luggage — the British Airways pilot who got sucked out of the windscreen is the ultimate travel nightmare.” ABC Net News, January 14, 2023. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-01-15/ba5390-pilot-sucked-out-windscreen-the-ultimate-nightmare/101813438.

Bywater, Thomas. “Image of pilot hanging out window captures heroic story 30 years on.” New Zealand Herald, November 18, 2020. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/travel/image-of-pilot-hanging-out-window-captures-heroic-story-30-years-on/GR2HBBCBUGMOTA7MEYPI7UR54A/.

Kane, Hannah. “Incredible career of BA pilot who SURVIVED after being sucked out of window.” Mirror, April 23, 2023. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/incredible-career-ba-pilot-who-29804366.

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