31 Years Ago A Pilot Survived 20 Minutes Outside A Flying Jet

Explosive decompressions can cause a serious threat to life onboard an aircraft. Thankfully, such incidents are rare, but, of those which have occurred, one stands out as a particularly incredible story of survival. Specifically, this week marks 31 years since the captain of a British Airways BAC 1-11 survived being sucked out of his seat and pinned to the aircraft’s exterior for 20 minutes. Let’s explore the unbelievable tale of British Airways flight BA5390.

British Airways BAC 1-11
The plane involved in the incident. Two British Airways BAC 1-11s have been preserved, but not this one. Photo: Rob Hodgkins via Flickr

The flight in question

British Airways flight 5390 was a service from Birmingham (BHX) down to Málaga–Costa del Sol (AGP), Spain’s fourth-busiest airport. This was, and remains, an immensely popular leisure corridor among sun-seeking British tourists looking to enjoy a Spanish holiday. Today, Jet2, Ryanair, and TUI all ply this route. easyJet will join the party later this month.

BA no longer operates out of Birmingham. That being said, it does still serve Málaga from London (City, Gatwick, and Heathrow) and Southampton. This underlines the destination’s nationwide popularity among travelers from all over the UK.

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Málaga Airport
Málaga Airport in southern Spain has consistently seen high numbers of UK tourists for several decades. Photo: Javier Bravo Muñoz via Wikimedia Commons

The day of the incident was June 10th, 1990. While this falls outside typical British school holiday dates, the flight was still reasonably well loaded, with 81 passengers (and six crew). Flight BA5390 was operated by the stretched BAC 1-11-500. This had a maximum capacity of 119 passengers seated five abreast. It departed Birmingham at 08:20 local time.

The aircraft involved

As we have established, the aircraft operating flight BA5390 on June 10th, 1990 was a BAC 1-11-500. British Airways operated 35 of these rear-engined planes from 1974 to 1993. Additionally, it also flew seven examples of the shorter BAC 1-11-400 from 1974 to 1998.

This particular example bore the registration G-BJRT. It was named County of South Glamorgan, after a coastal region of South Wales. It had only joined BA in 1988, although it was not brand-new at this point. Indeed, it had originally entered service with West Germany’s Bavaria Fluggesellschaft in 1971, which was renamed Bavaria Germanair in 1977.

British Caledonian Airways BAC 1-11
G-BJRT in its British Caledonian days. Photo: Guido Allieri via Wikimedia Commons

The aircraft joined fellow German airline Hapag-Lloyd Flug in 1979, before moving on in 1981. This took it from Germany to the UK, where it joined British Caledonian, as seen above. It was with the carrier for seven years before BA acquired the airline and its fleet in 1988. At the time of the incident, G-BJRT had been in service for a total of 19 years.

Decompression over Didcot

Following an uneventful departure under the control of First Officer Alastair Atchison, the flight climbed out of Birmingham on a southerly heading towards the Spanish sunshine. During the climb, Atchison handed control of the aircraft over to Captain Tim Lancaster.

13 minutes after the flight’s departure from Birmingham, at 08:33 local time, G-BJRT was at an altitude of 17,300 feet over the railway town of Didcot, Oxfordshire. This was the point at which the flight’s storyline took a sudden and alarming turn. Specifically, the windscreen on Captain Lancaster’s side explosively separated from the plane with a loud bang.

British Airways BAC 1-11
One of the aircraft’s classmates, G-AVMU County of Dorset. Photo: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons

In a terrifying turn of events, the force of the sudden explosive decompression caused by the window coming loose propelled Captain Lancaster head-first out of the climbing aircraft. Luckily, he caught his legs on the flight controls, which prevented him from being sucked out altogether. However, this disengaged the autopilot, forcing the plane to descend.

Rapid descent

The aircraft picked up speed during its sudden descent as the decompression had caused the cockpit door to collapse inwards, jamming the throttle controls. First Officer Atchison elected to continue the descent to a safe altitude in terms of air pressure and oxygen levels.

British Airways BAC 1-11
The plane lost a windscreen panel over Didcot, Oxfordshire. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

This was because the 1-11 did not have sufficient auxiliary oxygen supplies for its entire contingent of passengers and crew. Meanwhile, cabin crew members had entered the cockpit to hold on to Captain Lancaster’s body. They feared that, if let go, his body might damage the wings or even be ingested into the engines, potentially causing further danger.

Emergency landing at Southampton

With the plane’s flight attendants holding Captain Lancaster in place, First Officer Atchison was able to regain full control of the aircraft, and set about initiating the process of an emergency landing. Air Traffic Control directed the flight to Southampton Airport.

There were fears that the runway might be too short for the heavily fueled BAC 1-11. However, the aircraft didn’t have the ability to dump fuel to save weight, leaving Atchison with no other options. The flight touched down safely at Southampton at 08:55 local time.

Southampton airport
The flight landed safely at Southampton Airport (SOU). This was despite it having more weight onboard in terms of fuel than would normally the case for a routine landing. Photo: Getty Images.

The landing took place 35 minutes after the flight’s initial departure from Birmingham. By this time, Captain Lancaster had been pinned outside the cockpit for more than 20 minutes, causing his colleagues to fear the worst about his survival prospects.

However, he somehow survived the tremendous ordeal, with just a handful of injuries to show for it. Lancaster suffered frostbite due to the time spent outside the aircraft, as well as shock, bruising, and fractures to his arms, hands, and wrists. Steward Nigel Ogden was the only other seriously injured party, suffering frostbite and a dislocated shoulder.

The investigation

Investigators quickly got to work on the alarming incident, and soon uncovered an equally shocking cause. This came about after the missing window and many of its 90 bolts were located in Cholsey, Oxfordshire. The village is around 5.5 miles (9 km) from Didcot, where the aircraft had been above at the time of its decompression.

British Airways BAC 1-11 Interior
The five-abreast cabin of BA’s BAC 1-11s. Photo: Timo Newton-Syms via Flickr

Upon examination, investigators found that the bolts used to hold the windscreen in place were fractions of a centimeter too narrow and short. They had been installed the night before the incident, when engineers changed the windscreen panel during maintenance.

While seemingly marginal, this difference meant they could not withstand the air pressure difference between the cabin and the outside at altitude. This difference is what caused the decompression. The investigation highlighted malpractice at BA’s maintenance facility in Birmingham, finding that workers had taken shortcuts to expedite procedures.

After the incident

The crew of British Airways flight 5390 became highly decorated in the aftermath of the incident. First Officer Atchison and flight attendants Susan Gibbins and Nigel Ogden were awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air for their heroism.

Jaro International BAC 1-11
The aircraft ended its career with Romanian carrier Jaro International in 2001. It joined the airline three years after the incident, in 1993. Photo: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons

Atchison also received a Polaris award in 1992 for his efforts amid the frightening and challenging conditions that faced him. He flew for Jet2 after leaving BA, eventually retiring in June 2015 on his 65th birthday. Captain Lancaster returned to the skies just five months after the incident, and also flew for easyJet before retiring in 2008.

As for the aircraft, it ultimately spent just three more years with BA, departing in 1993 for Romanian airline Jaro International. It saw out the final eight years of its career here, eventually retiring in 2001 after thirty years of service. Needless to say, these three decades never had another flight quite like the incredible survival story of flight BA5390.

Were you aware of this extraordinary story from 1990? Do you know of any other similar incidents? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.