Miraculous Survival: The Story of British Airways Flight 5390

2023-12-17 11:00:00
The British Airways plane, a BAC 1-11 528FL built in 1977 and registered G-BJRT, had accumulated 37,724 flight hours at the time of the accident. ©WikiCommons

“You will be happy to know that the weather is sunny and dry in Malaga and that we should be on our way shortly,” Captain Lancaster cheerfully announces to the quietly seated passengers, before the aircraft takes off towards the ‘Andalusia. It is now 7:20 a.m. in Birmingham.

But only thirteen minutes later, things change. As the plane reached an altitude of 17,300 feet (5,000 meters), the captain, approaching the cruise phase of the flight, loosened his safety harness. But the windshield starts to shake. Within just a few seconds, the left window came loose and was sucked into the air, causing a loud thud. Nigel Ogden says: “I went into the cockpit to ask if they wanted tea. I had just gone out, I still had my hand on the door handle, when there was a huge explosion and the door was ripped from my hands. I thought, ‘My God! It’s a bomb.”

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Turning around, the steward then discovered an unimaginable scene. Captain Tim Lancaster was sucked out of the cockpit. We only see his legs, one of which is stuck in the on-board controls, blocking the autopilot. The cabin door crashed into the navigation panel and the radio system. Suddenly filled with mist, the plane begins to plunge towards the ground at nearly 650 km/h, in a very busy sky…

Nigel Ogden rushes into the cockpit to hold Tim Lancaster by the waist, whose chest is pressed against the cabin. “I was hanging on to survive, but I felt that I too was being sucked in,” recalls the steward. One of his colleagues then grabs him and ties him to the captain’s seat belt to prevent him from sliding out of the cabin. Another steward frees Lancaster’s legs and debris from the doors, allowing co-pilot Alistair Atcheson – who fortunately is still wearing his safety harness – to regain control of the plane and re-engage the autopilot.

But hell is far from over for the crew and the 81 passengers, reassured as best they can by their flight attendant. Stunned, Alistair Atcheson sent a distress call to the control towers, but the air rushing into the cockpit caused everything around him to fly and prevented him from hearing the instructions issued via the radio. With 7,500 hours of flight experience, Atcheson does not hesitate for a second and, from memory, begins the recommended procedure in a situation of explosive depressurization. Instead of slowing down the aircraft, it continues the dizzying descent of BAC 1-11. In less than two minutes, shaken in all directions, the plane returned to an altitude of 3,300 meters, where oxygen is more present and the risk of collision is lower.

Next to him, Nigel Ogden weakened and began to have difficulty holding Tim Lancaster, because “the pressure made him weigh the equivalent of 200 kilos”, assures the steward. His frozen arms almost make him let go, as he sees his captain’s head bang against the remaining piece of the windshield. Nearby Sydney Morning Herald in 2005, he recounted the appalling spectacle that unfolded before his eyes: “Blood was flowing from Tim’s nose and the side of his head, his arms were waving and seemed to be about 1.8 meters long. The terrifying thing was that his eyes were wide open. I will never forget that, as long as I live.”

Nigel being no longer able to hold on, his colleague took over by holding Lancaster by the ankles, from the folding seat positioned behind the pilots. In the cockpit, the hope of keeping the commander in this position is dwindling. “We’re going to have to let him go…” dares a member of the cabin crew, while Nigel fiercely opposes it. Exhausted, he left the cockpit while, in the meantime, the co-pilot managed to establish a radio connection with the air traffic controllers. Stunned by the situation, they directed him to make an emergency landing at Southampton airport.

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Alone and despite an overloaded aircraft due to barely used fuel, Alistair Atcheson managed to land the BAC 1-11 gently, on an unknown runway and almost half as long as planned. The passengers were evacuated upon landing, while the emergency services took care of Tim Lancaster. On the tarmac, no one believes it: the captain survived. Having fallen unconscious after sliding out of the cockpit, Lancaster was evacuated from the plane in a state of shock, suffering “only” three fractures (left thumb, right arm and right wrist), contusions and frostbite. On the faces of the cabin crew, big tears of relief flow, as the last passengers exit the plane. Miraculously, none of them are injured. Nigel Ogden escaped with a dislocated shoulder and frostbite to his face. “Only 18 minutes passed between the explosion and the landing, but it seemed like hours,” he confided later, scarred for life.

But how could such an incident happen? Why did the windshield come loose after only about ten minutes of flight? The investigation by the British Air Accidents Bureau (AAIB) revealed that the window, replaced the night before takeoff, was attached with unsuitable bolts. Indeed, the engineer responsible for fitting the new windshield used 90 nuts as required, but 84 were the wrong diameter (0.6mm less than recommended), and the other six were slightly too short. Put under pressure by his employer, the man did not take the time to carefully check the bolts taken from the workshop. His work was not peer-reviewed, and when the plane climbed to altitude, the nuts did not support the pressure difference between the cockpit and the outside.

The bolts used to secure the windshield of the Bac 1-11 plane during British Airways Flight 5390 were not the correct ones. ©WikiCommons

“The crew were faced with an immediate and unforeseen emergency situation. The combined actions of the co-pilot and cabin crew helped avert what could have been a major catastrophe,” the AAIB report said. highlighting the “quick thinking and perseverance” of the crew, which enabled the survival of everyone on board British Airways Flight 5390.

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