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October 5, 2022

Tim Lancaster: The Amazing Story of the Pilot Who Was Sucked Out of Plane for Twenty Minutes at 23,000ft and Survived

British Airways Flight 5390 was a flight from Birmingham Airport in England for Málaga Airport in Spain. On June 10, 1990, the BAC One-Eleven 528FL suffered explosive decompression resulting in no loss of life. While the aircraft was flying over Didcot, Oxfordshire, an improperly installed windscreen panel separated from its frame causing the captain to be sucked out of the aircraft. The captain, Tim Lancaster, was partially held through the window frame for twenty minutes until the first officer landed at Southampton Airport.

Screenshot of a reconstruction of the event carried out by Discovery.

BA Flight 5390 departed Birmingham, in central England, at 7:20 a.m on June 10, 1990, headed for Malaga, in southern Spain. On board the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) One-Eleven jetliner, built in 1977, were 81 passengers and six crew members.

After a smooth take off, Lancaster unbuckled his seatbelt and switched on the autopilot. However, at 7:33 a.m., as the aircraft passed over Didcot in Oxfordshire, 55 miles west of London, at an altitude of 17,300 feet, the pilot’s windshield blew out, causing sudden cabin depressurization and sucking Lancaster out the window. Government investigators would later conclude that the windscreen had been replaced just 27 hours earlier, but most of the bolts used were inappropriate.

It is not entirely clear why Lancaster was not instantly sucked all the way out the window but, remarkably, it appears to be the case that one or both of his feet happened to be temporarily stuck under the control column — an extraordinary twist of fate that saved Lancaster’s life and, potentially prevented a complete catastrophe.

The pilot was held inside of a plane by his legs after a window popped off on a disastrous flight to Malaga. (Photo: Discovery)

That initial explosive decompression, which lasted between 1.13 and 1.46 seconds, caused condensation mist and swirling winds to rapidly fill the flight deck, and left Lancaster suspended by his legs while airflow outside the airplane pinned his torso and head against the front of the airplane.

Third steward Ogden and purser Heward reacted quickly. While Ogden rushed over to Lancaster and grabbed him by the waist, Heward removed part of the flight deck door – which had been blown off in the initial force of the decompression – from the control column, allowing co-pilot Atchison to 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 flight deck and helped Ogden hold on to 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 discover he had survived when they saw him kicking his feet outside the aircraft, several minutes later. Interviewed for a later documentary film, Lancaster himself said he had managed to twist his torso around to face the inside of the airplane, so that he could breathe, but quickly lost consciousness and remembered nothing of the rest of his ordeal, until he woke up in hospital.

Heroes of flight 5390: Captain Tim Lancaster surrounded by crew, from left, Alistair Atchison, John Howard, Nigel Ogden, Susan Prince and Simon Rogers. (Photo / PA Images via Getty Images)

“I thought I was going to lose him, but he ended up bent in a U-shape around the windows,” Nigel Ogden said in an interview. “His face was banging against the window with blood coming out of his nose and the side of his head, his arms were flailing and seemed about 6 feet long. Most terrifyingly, his eyes were wide open. I’ll never forget that sight as long as I live.”

Setting aside humanitarian and ethical considerations, letting go of Lancaster could have proven catastrophic, if his body subsequently caused damage to the wing or engine of the aircraft. As it turned out, Rogers held on until Atchison was able to make a successful emergency landing at Southampton airport, on the south coast of England.

Atchison landed the plane in Southampton at 7:55 a.m – 22 minutes after the incident had begun. None of the passengers were injured, Ogden was treated for frostbite, cuts and bruises on his arm, and bore lasting psychological trauma from the experience. Lancaster was brought 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 cockpit of the British Airways Bac 1-11 with two windows missing. (Photo: Murray Sanders/Daily Mail/Shutterstock)

G-BJRT, the aircraft involved, seen in July 1989. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

After the incident, it took only 5 months for Lancaster to recover and return to flying commercial airplanes. He continued working at British Airways until 2003, when he switched to easyJet until his retirement in 2008. Meanwhile, Atchinson went a little further, and worked until his 65th birthday, in 2015.

In December 1991, Queen Elizabeth II approved the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Services in the Air for the other five crew members. The citation read: For services in saving the captain of a British Airways, by holding on to him when he was partially sucked out of the cockpit, following decompression after the windscreen blew out in flight. The officers were in danger themselves through the effect of the slipstream.

The crew managed to keep hold of Lancaster for the duration of the flight. (Photo: PA Images)

The story of Tim Lancaster is one of the most incredible in commercial aviation, not only because Lancaster survived, when everything indicates that under these conditions it was very likely that he would lose his life, but also because of the heroism of the crew and co-pilot who did not surrender, held his captain and managed to land the aircraft without no passengers were hurt.


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