On June 10, 1990, a British Airways crew found themselves in a situation that one would only expect to see in a movie. As the BAC 1-11 flew 23,000 feet over Didcot, Oxfordshire in England, one of the windows in the airplane’s windshield blew out.
As if things couldn’t get much worse, the captain, Tim Lancaster, was sucked out of the window.
The flight had started normally.
Lancaster and his British Airways co-pilot, Alastair Atchison, experienced a routine takeoff and were 15 minutes into their flight from Birmingham, England to Málaga, Spain.
But when Atchison relinquished controls to Lancaster, there was a sudden loud noise, followed by immediate decompression inside the cockpit. The window next to Lancaster blew out and he was instantly sucked outside of the airplane. Fortunately, his feet caught on the controls.
Lancaster was sucked outside, his body enduring the harsh elements as the plane started to dive.
Nigel Ogden, a flight attendant who had just been on the flight deck, sprang into action and grabbed Lancaster’s legs, which were entangled in his seat belt and the flight controls.
As calmly as he could, Atchison put on his oxygen mask and requested permission for an emergency landing, although the sound of the rushing wind made it nearly impossible for him to hear air traffic control.
Ogden continued to cling onto Lancaster, but due to the open window he began to suffer from frostbite and started to become extremely exhausted, so another flight attendant buckled into Lancaster’s seat and offered assistance.
“I could see a body hanging out of the window, with two men and a woman hanging onto his legs,” Margaret Simmonds, a passenger on the flight told Great Britain’s Press Association.
The flight crew worked tirelessly to save their captain.
Atchison continued to fly the plane to the closest airport. All the while the flight crew could hear their captain’s body hitting the plane. They thought he was dead, but feared that letting him go could possibly cause another disaster—his body could get sucked into one of the engines.
Thirty-five minutes after British Airways flight 5390 took off, it landed in Southampton, less than 200 miles away from their origin.
When the plane landed, everyone was shocked to see the captain was alive.
Once the plane landed emergency crew immediately tended to the flight crew. Lancaster was transported to the hospital and was treated for multiple fractures in his arms, frostbite, and shock. One of the other flight attendants who helped save Lancaster was treated for frostbite and a dislocated shoulder.
Miraculously, five months after the accident, Lancaster returned to work.
“The crew were tremendous,” British Airways spokesperson Anthony Cocklin said to the media. ”We have nothing but praise for them. It was a tremendous example of alertness and we are very proud of them.”
An investigation later found that a replacement windshield had been improperly installed 27 hours earlier. The accident also made the airline aware of a design flaw, and now the windshields are installed so they are secured from the inside rather than the outside.