In early 2022, an old story about an extraordinary mid-air near-miss resurfaced on social media. For example, on February 10, “Historical Photographs” writes on facebook:
In 1990, Flight 5390 captain Timothy Lancaster was sucked out of his own plane when the plane’s window fell. The crew held the captain’s legs for 30 minutes as the plane made an emergency landing. Everyone survived. Here is a photo of the captain in a hospital a few days later.
In 1990, an improperly installed window exploded on a BA flight from the UK to Spain, causing the captain to be sucked in halfway at an altitude of 17,000ft. The crew had to cling to the captain’s legs for more than 30 minutes during an emergency landing. All survived.
These popular social media posts referenced an actual incident with a high degree of factual accuracy. The incident in question lasted 22 minutes instead of 30, but apart from this rather minor exaggeration, the messages accurately described the following key facts: On the morning of June 10, 1990, a flight deck (cockpit) windshield improperly installed exploded on UK flight. Airways (BA) Flight 5390, causing an explosive depressurization and sucking the pilot, Tim Lancaster, halfway outside the plane. The crew members did indeed prevent him from being thrown entirely out of the plane by holding him by the legs, and everyone on board survived after an emergency landing. We assign a rating of “true”.
What happened to Tim Lancaster on Flight 5390?
In February 1992, the UK Department for Transport published an authoritative 62-page report on the incident, which can be read in full here. While social media posts captured some of the key facts, these posts actually tended to minimize the near-miraculous nature of Lancaster’s escape from death or serious injury, and the official report contains truly extraordinary details. The following summary is a paraphrase of that 1992 report, except where noted.
BA 5390 took off from Birmingham, central England, at 7.20 a.m. on June 10, 1990, bound for Malaga, southern Spain. On board the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) One-Eleven airliner, built in 1977, were 81 passengers and six crew members, including:
- Captain Tim Lancaster, 42
- Copilot Alistair Atchison, 39 years old
- Purser (Chief Air Hostess) John Heward, 37
- Second Steward Simon Rogers, 29
- Third Steward Nigel Ogden, 36
- Fourth steward Sue Prince, 33
After a smooth takeoff, Lancaster unbuckled his seat belt and turned on the autopilot. However, at 7.33 a.m., as the plane passed over Didcot in Oxfordshire, 55 miles west of London, at an altitude of 17,300 feet, the pilot’s windshield blew out, causing the cabin to suddenly depressurize and sucking Lancaster out the window. Government investigators would later conclude that the windshield had been replaced only 27 hours earlier, but most of the bolts used were improper.
It’s not entirely clear why Lancaster wasn’t instantly sucked out the window but, remarkably, it appears that one or both of his feet got temporarily stuck under the control column – an extraordinary twist of fate that saved Lancaster’s life and, as we’ll explain later, potentially prevented a complete catastrophe.
This initial explosive decompression, which lasted between 1.13 and 1.46 seconds, caused a fog of condensation and swirling winds to quickly fill the cockpit, and left Lancaster suspended by his legs as the flow of air outside the aircraft was pressing his chest and head against the front of the aircraft.
Third Steward Ogden and Commissioner Heward responded quickly. As Ogden rushed to Lancaster and grabbed him by the waist, Heward removed part of the cockpit door—which had been blown off during the initial force of the decompression—from the control stick, allowing copilot Atchison take control of the aircraft and attempt to arrange an emergency landing with local air traffic control.
Then, while second and fourth stewards Rogers and Prince reassured the passengers, Heward reentered the cockpit and helped Ogden hold Lancaster’s waist and legs. Ogden, exposed to biting winds and air temperatures of −17° Celsius (just over 1° Fahrenheit) was rapidly developing frostbite and becoming exhausted, so Rogers took over.
The crew would later tell investigators that during this time they all assumed Lancaster was already dead and were relieved to find he had survived when they saw him kicking outside the ship. plane, several minutes later. Interviewed for later documentary filmLancaster himself said he managed to twist his torso to face the inside of the plane, so he could breathe, but quickly lost consciousness and remembered nothing of the rest of his ordeal , until he wakes up in the hospital.
Humanitarian and ethical considerations aside, Lancaster’s abandonment could have proved catastrophic, had his body subsequently caused damage to the aircraft’s wing or engine. In the end, Rogers held on until Atchison made an emergency landing at Southampton Airport on the south coast of England.
the official transcript of Atchison’s conversation with air traffic control at Southampton contains the following remarkable exchange, as controller Chris Rundle attempts to clarify the nature and extent of the emergency facing BA 5390:
Rundle (Southampton Air Traffic Control): …How many people are on board?
Atchison (Co-pilot BA 5390): We have eighty-four passengers, sir, and I think that will be it until we hit the ground.
Rundle: Roger, it’s copied. And we were told it was a pressurization failure. Is this the only problem? Speedbird five three nine zero turn left heading one one zero.
Atchison: Turn left one one zero speedbird five three nine zero.
Rundle: Five three nine zero, we’ve been advised it’s a pressurization failure, is that the only problem?
Atchison: Negative sir, the captain is half sucked out of the plane. I understand — I believe he is dead.
Rundle: Roger, it’s copied.
Atchison: The stewardess holds him, but requests emergency facilities for the captain. I… I… I think he’s dead.
Rundle: Roger, it’s copied. Continue your descent…
In the later documentary film, Rundle reflects on the surreal nature of this conversation:
This doesn’t actually happen. It’s one of those things that you see in movies, happens in movies, but it doesn’t happen in real life… The hairs on the back of the neck stand on end and there’s this feeling in the spine, the tingle in the spine and you think “No, it’s not for real”, but it has to be.
Atchison landed the plane in Southampton at 7:55 a.m., 22 minutes after the incident began. None of the passengers were injured, Ogden was treated for frostbite, cuts and bruises to his arm, and suffered lasting psychological trauma from the experience. Lancaster was taken to Southampton General Hospital where, remarkably, his only injuries were bone fractures in his right arm and wrist, a broken left thumb, frostbite, bruising and shock. The following photograph was taken the next day, June 11, 1990:
Lancaster returned to commercial flying just five months later, and finally retired in 2008. In December 1991, Queen Elizabeth II approved the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air for the remaining five crew members. The quote said:
For services rendered in rescuing the captain of a British Airways, by restraining him when he was partially sucked out of the cockpit, following a decompression after the windscreen exploded in flight. The…officers were themselves in danger from the effect of the wake.
“1/1992 BAC One-Eleven, G-BJRT, June 10, 1990.” GOV.UK, https://www.gov.uk/aaib-reports/1-1992-bac-one-eleven-g-bjrt-10-june-1990. Accessed February 14, 2022.
“In 1990, an incorrectly installed window exploded on a BA flight from the UK to Spain, causing the captain to be sucked in halfway at an altitude…” Quora, https://kathleenpennellsposts.quora.com/In-1990-a-badly-installed-window-blew-out-of-a-BA-flight-from-the-UK-to-Spain-causing-the-captain -to-be-sucked-in-halfway. Accessed February 14, 2022.
Leadbeater, Chris. “How a BA pilot was sucked in through a cockpit window, but lived to tell the tale.” The telegraph20 Nov 2020. www.telegraph.co.ukhttps://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/ba-pilot-got-sucked-cockpit-window-lived-tell-tale/.
27 | Supplement 52767, December 30, 1991 | London Gazette | The Gazette. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/52767/supplement/27. Accessed February 14, 2022.
Page 19582 | Supplement 52750, December 19, 1991 | London Gazette | The Gazette. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/52750/supplement/19582. Accessed February 14, 2022.
pilot sucked out of the plane: the mystery of British Airways flight 5390 | Mayday S2 EP1 | Wonder. www.youtube.com, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SI2V_DbCTw. Accessed February 14, 2022.