June 10, 1990: Miracle of BA Flight 5390 as captain is sucked out of the cockpit – and survives

Quick-thinking cabin crew saved Captain Tim Lancaster’s life when a faulty window blew out at 17,300 feet and hauled him outside the jet for 22 minutes.

An aviation disaster was narrowly averted on this day in 1990, when a wrongly-installed panel of the windscreen on British Airways Flight 5390 fell out, causing the plane’s cockpit to decompress and its captain to be pulled halfway out of the aircraft at over 17,000 feet.

BA 5390 left Birmingham Airport at 7.20am, heading for Malaga in Spain.  At the controls were Captain Tim Lancaster, 42, and his co-pilot, 39-year-old Alastair Atchison, both experienced flyers, and their take-off was routine.

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Less than 15 minutes into the flight, with the plane at 17,300 feet over Oxfordshire, there was a loud bang in the cockpit, and the windscreen on the captain’s side blew out from its mooring, causing immediate decompression.

A reconstruction of the moment pilot Tim Lancaster was ejected from the cockpit and pinned to the roof of the plane (Image credit: National Geographic Channel).

Both pilots had loosened their harnesses, and Lancaster was forcefully pulled toward the open window by the rush of air. As the reconstruction from the National Geographic Channel's documentary Air Crash Investigation (above) shows, the whole top half of his body was dragged out of the plane, with only his legs remaining inside, caught on the flight controls.

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Flight attendant Nigel Ogden, on the flight deck at the time, quickly grabbed hold of Lancaster’s belt, while the stricken captain was flung from side to side by powerful winds and began to lose consciousness in the thin air at that altitude.

Four members of the crew of BA5390. Clockwise from top, Captain Tim Lancaster, flight attendant Simon Rogers, co-pilot Alistair Atchison and chief steward John Heward.

Ogden, too, began to suffer from frostbite and exhaustion, and was relieved by chief steward John Heward and flight attendant Simon Rogers (pictured above with Lancaster, standing, and Atchison, middle). Lancaster’s head was now banging against the side of the cockpit, leading the crew to believe he had died. Fortunately they held onto him in fear that his body might get sucked into the plane’s engine.

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Given permission for an emergency landing at Southampton Airport, Atchison brought the plane down safely as the crew hung on grimly to Lancaster. The pilot was discovered to be alive and was rushed to hospital as frightened passengers disembarked. The whole ordeal had lasted 22 minutes.

Image credits: National Geographic Channel, PA, Rex Features