TNB Night Owl – Flight BA5390

Image of British Airways flight BA5390, post-crisis. Image captured by the News Blender.

Sunday morning, June 10th, 1990: British Airways (BA) flight BA5390 is readying for departure from Birmingham, UK, with 81 passengers and six crewmembers, bound for Málaga–Costa del Sol, Spain, a popular holiday destination. The aircraft is a British Aircraft Corporation BAC 1-11-500 (commonly referred to as an ‘one-eleven’), registered as G-BJRT with the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK. Designed to compete in the same markets as the American-built Douglas DC-9, this BAC 1-11 was manufactured in 1971. Already nineteen years old, the jetliner had only joined BA three years prior with the acquisition of British Caledonian.

At 8:20, they lifted off with First Officer Alastair Atchison flying the aircraft. Departure was perfectly normal and routine. Around 8:30, as the plane neared 17,300 feet altitude, Atchison turned the flight controls over to Captain Tim Lancaster. The senior pilot announced to passengers that they were now free to remove their seatbelts, and he loosened his as well. The two pilots both had thousands of hours of piloting experience, and no doubt thought the next two and a half hours would be just another uneventful flight.

At 8:33, the windscreen directly in front of Captain Lancaster suddenly and explosively blew out. At 17,300 feet, the air pressure inside an airline cabin is much greater than the outside air at that altitude. All the air in the cockpit immediately escaped out the open window with such force that it swept Lancaster up out of his seat and more than halfway out of the cockpit. His feet caught on the control yoke – the only thing that stopped him from falling completely out of his aircraft. However, that action on the control yoke caused the plane to nose down toward earth. Lancaster saw the plane’s tail and engines briefly before he passed out.

Simultaneously with the explosive decompression of the cockpit, the air pressure in the passenger cabin buckled-in the cockpit door. Blown forward by the onrush of cabin air escaping through the pilot’s missing windscreen, it landed on top of the engine throttles, causing the jet to accelerate.

In the cabin, passengers were dealing with the sudden loss of air pressure. Confusion and panic no doubt raced through their minds as many could see directly into the cockpit now, and the incomprehensible sight of their pilot, or rather, their pilot’s legs only, above the seat he was supposed to be sitting in. Cold air replaced warm air, and the moisture in that air condensed quickly, filling the cabin with a cold fog to add to the surreal scene.

Meantime, co-pilot Atchison struggled to regain control of the aircraft with one hand and held on to Lancaster’s nearest ankle with the other. Flight attendants rushed into the cockpit as quickly as they could manage amid the chaos. Nigel Ogden and Susan Gibbins grabbed hold of Lancaster’s legs and freed them from the control yoke. They held on for the next twenty minutes, until the plane landed. Other flight attendants removed the cockpit door, allowing Atchison to pull back the throttles and slow their descent.

Air traffic control cleared BA5390 for an immediate landing at the nearest airport, Southampton, where they were met by emergency vehicles. Incredibly, although Lancaster had been outside the aircraft for more than twenty minutes, he only suffered from frostbite, bruises, and laceration: all the more astonishing that he even survived since oxygen masks are required whenever pilots fly unpressurized aircraft above 10,000 feet. Ogden, the steward who stood in front of the open windscreen, holding on to Lancaster, also was treated for frostbite.

And the reason the windscreen just popped out unexpectedly? It had been replaced two nights prior, and the mechanic that did the work used screws that were a fraction of a millimeter smaller than specified by the technical repair manual.

Always remember: leave your seatbelt on in flight, even if the captain tells you it’s ok to unfasten it.

“The Captain Was Blown Out of the Plane (British Airways Flight 5390) – DISASTER AVERTED” (22:31):

Question Of The Night: Worst (or best) flying experience you’ve ever had was…?

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About Richard Doud 622 Articles
Learning is a life-long endeavor. Never stop learning. No one is right all the time. No one is wrong all the time. No exceptions to these rules.