In episode 93 of Take to the Sky: the Air Disaster Podcast, we discuss the incredible story of British Airways Flight 5390, which experienced an explosive decompression in air on June 10, 1990, when the captain’s windscreen exploded after being improperly fitted with bolts of the incorrect size. The force of the decompression pulled the captain partially out of the airplane, pinning him against the outer fuselage while crew members held onto his legs for twenty minutes as First Officer Alastair Atchison heroically – and safely – landed the plane. And amazingly, Captain Lancaster survived and returned to flying just five months later. The investigation uncovered faulty maintenance practices that rewarded engineers for cutting corners so long as planes took off on time. Following the terrifying ordeal, the crew were awarded the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air for their heroic and quick-thinking efforts that saved everyone onboard Flight 5390.
Crew of British Airways Flight 5390 Worked Together Before Flight
June 10, 1990, began just like any other day for the 6 crew and 81 passengers that were about to board British Airways Flight 5390. For starters, this route, from Birmingham, England, to Malaga, Spain, was a popular route especially this time of year for sun-seeking British tourists eager to get on with their Spanish holiday.
Flight 5390 was being operated by one of the many short-haul aircraft in the British Airways fleet: a stretched BAC (short for British Aircraft Corporation for the manufacturer) one-eleven 500 series aircraft, which was a narrow-bodied passenger jet with rear-mounted Rolls Royce engines. It was considered a “workhorse” and aptly nicknamed “the Jeep of the sky.” (The DC-9 was later modelled after this type of aircraft, and those two planes look alike if that gives you an idea of what the BAC one-eleven looked like.)
Commanding the aircraft for this regular, two-hour-plus flight is Captain Tim Lancaster, a 21-year-veteran pilot with over 11,000 total flying hours, and he is joined by First Officer Alastair Atchison, who is new to British Airways but has 7,500 total flying hours himself.
Rounding out the crew today for Flight 5390 is chief steward John Heward, stewards Simon Rogers and Nigel Ogden, and stewardess Sue Gibbins. This cabin crew had flown together many times over several years with the airline and consider one another to be friends.
After the 81 passengers have boarded, the pilots complete their pre-flight tasks and then contact air traffic control (or ATC) using their standard call sign of “Speedbird 5390” to request takeoff clearance, which is granted: they are cleared to takeoff and climb to 23,000 feet (or 7,010 meters).
Flight 5390 Experiences Explosive Decompression at 17,300 Feet
For this leg of the flight, the first officer will handle the takeoff, and then once the climb is established, he would hand things over to the captain from there.
Then as planned, Flight 5390 takes off normally at 8:20 AM local time. Inside the cockpit, both pilots had begun to relax a little, taking off their shoulder harnesses now that the plane is in its climb while the cabin crew began preparations to serve the inflight meal and beverages.
All of this to say there was no hint of what was about to happen next onboard Flight 5390, but as we know on this podcast, one doesn’t always get a warning before something bad is about to happen.
Just 13 minutes after takeoff, and when the plane is flying over Oxfordshire at an altitude of 17,300 feet (or 5,273 meters), suddenly, a loud bang erupts. Immediately, the cabin fills with what looks like a misty wind from a tornado – it is condensation mist that forms when an explosive decompression happens, when the air inside the cabin mixes with the colder air outside the plane, raising the relative humidity and causing sudden condensation. And to make matters worse for the passengers, not only are they struggling to breathe and face the 350 mph (or 560 kph) wind ripping through the cabin, but the plane is now in a sudden and steep dive, which makes the plane begin to shutter violently.
For the experienced cabin crew, this emergency situation has come out of the blue, and makes them wonder if the plane has been bombed. But this is not the result of a bomb. It’s something much simpler, yet even more unexpected. And it has come from the cockpit.
Flight 5390 Captain Pulled Out of Plane When Windscreen Exploded
On the Captain’s side of the flight deck, the windscreen (or windshield as we would call it) has exploded and blown straight out into the open air, taking with it even the bolts that held it to the plane on the outer fuselage. And the glass of the windscreen is not the only thing to be ripped out into the wide open.
The force of the windscreen explosion creates a decompression inside the cockpit, bringing with it a violent pressure that sends anything not secured down forward into the cockpit and out the hole where the windscreen was just moments before. This force causes the door to the cockpit to be pulled onto the flight deck where it lays across the radio and navigation controls. And all the manuals and maps the pilots use to navigate are also sucked out into the blue beyond.
But this is not all that has happened within the blink of an eye. Something much worse has happened. The force of the explosive decompression has also pulled the body of Captain Tim Lancaster up out of his seat and through the broken windscreen, violently thrusting his body backward on to the top of the fuselage, pinning him there – but only from the waist up. As he was being pulled out, the captain’s legs get tangled in the control column, probably the only thing that saved his body from being completely sucked out. But his legs and feet are pressed into the control column, pushing it all the way forward – this is what has switched off the autopilot and put the plane into a sudden dive. The aircraft is now racing downwards at a heart stopping speed of over 400 mph (or 643 kph).
Immediately, First Officer Atchison sends a mayday transmission to air traffic control (or ATC), and even though ATC can hear the first officer’s screams of help, the first officer cannot hear ATC because of the violent wind tunnel they are all inside of right now.
British Airways Flight 5390 Stewards Hold Captain Lancaster Inside Plane for 20 Minutes
Steward Nigel Ogden, who was working in the galley right behind the cockpit sees that the door to the cockpit has been blown onto the control panel and that there is a hole where the windscreen used to be. And when he sees the captain’s legs dangling inside the controls, he acts immediately. Nigel rushes into the cockpit and straddles the captain’s seat, putting one foot in the foot well on the floor and his other foot alongside the captain’s seat. He lifts the captain’s legs out of the control column, so they are no longer pressing into the column and wraps his arms around both Captain Lancaster’s legs and holds onto him, literally, for dear life.
And then Chief steward John Heward rushes in to help Nigel. John first stomps his feet onto the fallen cockpit door laying over the controls until it breaks, now no longer blocking the controls. Then John loops his arm through the seatbelt in the jump seat to give his own body leverage while he joins Nigel in holding the captain inside the plane. Now Nigel holds the captain’s legs while John holds onto his ankles. They are eventually aided by steward Simon Rogers, who joins in on the chain of men holding onto the captain’s motionless body.
And this is not easy work. Not only are Nigel and John fighting with the fierce pressure that wants to suck Captain Lancaster’s body completely out of the cockpit, but they also are feeling the full brunt of blasting cold air and tornado-level winds that brutalize their arms and hands – and at this altitude, temperatures are in the negative of degrees, quickly causing frostbite.
But their efforts have paid off – the plane is now back under the control of the first officer. But First Officer Atchison cannot focus on his captain’s dangling body, or the men who are clinging desperately to him, fighting against extreme forces. His focus must now be on one thing only: getting this plane, its crew and passengers, back on the ground as soon as possible.
Though First Officer Atchison is new to the team, he does have 7,500 hours flying time, and of that time, he has almost 1,100 hours on this aircraft. That is a bit more than Captain Lancaster had on the aircraft. Now, without manuals, checklists, or maps to guide him, he is flying the plane strictly from memory and by himself.
British Airways 5390 First Officer Flying Plane By Himself and Land Plane at South Hampton
His first order of business is to get the plane back down to an altitude where he and his crew and passengers can breathe the air more easily. To achieve this urgent goal, First Officer Atchison chooses to stay in the dive, now under his control, for two reasons: one, at this rate of decent, they will reach breathable air faster, and two, they will be flying at an altitude where there is less air traffic. This last thought was a scary reality: in addition to their own onboard emergency, Atchison must avoid a collision with other planes that may be in his path.
In just two-and-a-half heart-racing minutes, First Officer Atchison gets the plane to 11,000 feet (or 3,352 meters) where there is breathable air and where he can reengage the autopilot.
At this altitude, and now out of the dive, Captain Lancaster’s body has slid around to the side of the plane. Through the remaining windscreen, the men can see the captain’s face and body as it continues to beat against the outer fuselage. Blood streaks across the glass. His eyes are wide open – and unblinking.
The men holding onto the captain’s body look at First Officer Atchison, wondering aloud if it would just be easier to let go of the captain’s body. By this amount of time that has passed, Nigel’s arms are aching and are frostbitten, so John and Simon take over for Nigel while he goes back into the cabin.
But First Officer Atchison’s order is clear. He says, “No, if you could hold on to him.” While this may seem like it comes from a source of compassion, it also comes from a place of practicality: letting go of Lancaster’s body may cause it to be sucked into an engine, which would be catastrophic for the aircraft. Atchison is not about to let that happen.
No within a safer altitude, First Officer Atchison slows the plane’s speed way down to just around 110 mph (or 177 kph) so that he can hear communications with ATC. His next objective is the most important one: find the closest airport.
The first officer now must decide where they will land. He requests permission to land at Gatwick, an airport with which Atchison is familiar, but South Hampton, an airport into which he has never flown, is closer. This is an important distinction because, normally, pilots would cover the airport layout in their briefings, and in the cockpit, would use their airport maps to learn the layout of the runways. But Flight 5390 was not supposed to land at South Hampton and all those navigational maps were literally blown out of the window.
Zone Controller Talks British Airways Flight 5390 First Officer Through Landing Every Step of the Way
Atchison knows they have no time to waste – South Hampton it is. He is transferred to their control center and to the voice of zone controller Chris Rundle. Because of his unfamiliarity with the airport and having no maps to guide himself, First Officer Atchison requests that Rundle guide him to the airport every step of the way. Rundle then asks Atchison to confirm the pressurization is the only problem Flight 5390 is experiencing.
The first officer replies back, “Er negative sir the er captain is half sucked out of the airplane. I understand I believe he is dead.” The hairs on the back of Rundle’s neck raise up as he hears this astonishing news. But there is more from Atchison: “Er flight attendant's holding on to him but er requesting…requesting emergency facilities for the Captain. I…I…I think he’s dead.”
Rundle contacts emergency services so they will be waiting for the plane when and if it lands.
There is one final concern for Rundle and First Officer Atchison to discuss.
The runways at South Hampton airport are just shy of the minimum required for the BAC-111 when it is “heavy,” meaning full of fuel and luggage and people. And the BAC-111 is unable to dump fuel. But there is not a closer airport, so Atchison understands landing safely at South Hampton under these circumstances will be the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do. Tires could burst. They could overshoot the runway. The captain’s body is still clinging to the side of the plane, and the first officer has to do all this alone. There is no one else with whom he can talk. He would need to try and put the plane down as easy as he could. Which means he needs to be guided by expert hands to the airport.
Over the next several minutes, this is what zone controller Rundle does, working with Atchison to literally talk through every altitude change, how far they are from the airport, which heading to fly, which way to turn. And each time, Atchison, replies, “Five three nine zero thank you.” You see, Rundle understands on a profound level in this moment just how alone Atchison is. In an interview related to this event, Rundle said that pilots always received their training with the understanding there would be another pilot, one other person to handle tasks. Up there, thousands of feet above the earth, this first officer had to rely on only himself and the help Rundle could provide. Rundle wanted to be that other voice as best he could in this moment for Atchison. A great example of the comfort and help this may have provided to Atchison is when the plane reached 1,500 feet, Atchison says, “Roger sir descending to fifteen hundred feet talk me down all the way I need all the help I can get.”
When Flight 5390 is only five miles from the runway, Rundle says, “You need not acknowledge further instructions unless requested it will be an interrupted talk down but feel free to interrupt if you need to you are clear to land four and half miles on the final approach track heading zero two zero.” It was his way of saying, I am here if you need me. I am right here.
Finally, 32 minutes after takeoff and against any slim statistical odds that it was even possible, First Officer Atchison gently lays the plane down on the runway without incident. It is a flawless landing.
First Officer Atchison Hailed as Hero for Safely Landing British Airways 5390
Rundle proudly sends this final instruction: “Speedbird five three nine zero fantastic approach you may shut down on the runway and leave the frequency,” to which First Officer Atchison replied, “Five three nine zero thank you.” And Rundle’s congratulations are well-deserved – this is an unprecedented feat of flying in aviation history.
First Officer Alastair Atchison has not given interviews about his experience. But many passengers saw him right after everyone had deplaned, walking side by side with a first responder, who had his arm around the first officer, and the first officer had his head in his hands. In the dramatic reenactment of the flight for Mayday, the character of Atchison sobs upon landing. In reality, as the crew walked together away from the plane and into airport, the entire ground crew stopped, stood, and gave them a standing ovation. Everyone knew what they had just done was amazing.
Amazingly, Captain Tim Lancaster Survived being Pinned to Airplane
First responders also quickly remove the body of Captain Tim Lancaster from the plane. His body had been subjected to extreme forces – freezing temperatures, the physical violence of his body being beaten back against the fuselage, his brain being starved of precious oxygen. But inside the ambulance, Captain Lancaster opens his eyes. He has in fact survived.
Captain Lancaster has given many interviews about his experience, and his account is both terrifying and revealing of his character. Recalling what happened on Flight 5390, he first recalls hearing a loud bang, and then seeing the windscreen rip away. He was conscious as he was lifted up, and he recalls feeling and seeing himself go out of the plane. But being outside the plane wasn’t the part of the ordeal that he says bothered him the most. It was the wind and not being able to breathe. So, just before passing out, he manages to turn his head away from the beating wind, and this allows him to take tiny sips of air. The last thing he remembers is seeing the side of the outer fuselage, the tail, and the two engines.
The very next thing he remembers is waking up in the ambulance, and then much later, in the hospital. When it is all said and done, Captain Lancaster walked away from the ordeal with only a bone fracture, a broken wrist, bruises, frostbite, and shock. Upon hearing the news that Captain Lancaster has survived, the crew feel so relieved that they held on to him for as long as they did. Ultimately, medical professionals credit the captain’s survival with two things: one, being at 17,000 feet altitude where the air was moderately breathable was better than being at a higher altitude where breathing would have been impossible, and two, First Officer Atchison’s feat of flying, which got the plane back on the ground in just 20 minutes after the explosive decompression.
AAAIB Finds British Airways 5390 Explosive Decompression Came from Windscreen Attached to Plane Using Wrong Sized Bolts
The Air Accident Investigation Board (or AAIB) investigates how this impossible disaster happened – and they start with the missing windscreen. Unbelievably, the windscreen is found on the ground, but investigators cannot believe what they see: the screen has been secured to the plane with the wrong sized bolts. What the AAIB uncovered next was a series of maintenance errors that led to this catastrophic error when the windscreen was replaced the morning of the flight.
In the early morning hours before Flight 5390 took off, the aircraft was sitting in a hangar ready to get a new windscreen. The engineer on duty decided that he would replace the windscreen himself though he hadn’t replaced one in several years. He relied on his memory and never looked up the procedure in the BAC-111 maintenance manual because, if he or the other engineers spent time looking things up, they would never get their jobs done (this was actually what he said in an interview with the AAIB).
After removing all 90 bolts that held the windscreen to the outer fuselage, he saw that the old bolts were 7Ds. However, if he had read the manual, he would have known that the windscreen was normally secured with 8D bolts, which had the same diameter but were about a quarter of a centimeter longer. Whoever replaced the windscreen last time had used the wrong kind. Focused on replacing the same bolts used on the prior windscreen, the engineer then went to the on-site storeroom to find more 7D bolts. There, the store supervisor commented that 8D bolts were normally used on BAC-111 windscreens, but the engineer apparently disregarded this fact.
Not finding enough of the bolts in the store, the engineer then went to a self-service parts carousel in another part of the facility. He had bad eyesight and wasn’t wearing his glasses. So instead of pulling 7D bolts out of the drawer, he selected 84 of the 8C type bolts by sight and touch. He thought this entire time he was using the right bolt to begin with and had matched the old bolts correctly. Neither was true – he never should have been using 7D bolts (he should have used 8Ds) and he ended up selecting a bunch of 8C bolts, thinking they were 7D, which were incorrect in the first place.
The engineer then began installing the bolts on the captain’s side windshield. The thread spacing was the same as the correct bolts, so they fit into the holes.
And when the bolts occasionally slipped as he screwed them in, he could not see that happen because he was working at an awkward angle and could not tell that the bolts were not entirely secured. No one else inspected the work because a windscreen was not considered a “vital point” that needed double checking.
The following day, the engineer had one last chance to realize his mistake when he witnessed another mechanic replace a different windscreen using 8D bolts. But, still believing he had put in 7D bolts, he assumed this was just natural variance between different BAC-111s made at different times. After all, the bolts he took off had held the windscreen in place for four years. However, because of the way in which these new bolts had been secured incorrectly, the pressure at 17,000 feet (or 5,181 meters) was too much for these slipped bolts to hold together.
Upon further investigation, the AAIB found that the engineer who replaced the window had a supposedly glowing safety record, including several official commendations for the quality of his work. In trying to figure out how he could have made such a basic error, the AAIB found that what was called high quality work was in fact a series of strategies the engineer followed to help him save time, all the while believing in – above all else – his own abilities to perform the work correctly. He was so confident in his ability that he didn’t take extra effort to ensure that he was maintaining aircraft by the book, and in fact he stated that it was perfectly normal to use one’s own judgment rather than referring to official guidance materials. His small errors slipped under the radar because inspectors would have had to observe him actually doing the work to see the problems. His commendations, as it turned out, were less about his good work and more a recognition of his ability to keep aircraft on schedule at any cost.
AAIB Finds British Airways Maintenance Issues Were Systemic
These problems uncovered by the AAIB were found not to be specific to just this engineer. Instead, this problem extended to the entire Birmingham maintenance facility, and more broadly, to British Airways. Specifically, the AAIB found that the airline had a singular focus on “getting the job done” where if doing the work by the book took longer and jeopardized schedules, then doing the work by the book was discouraged. Cutting corners and relying solely on old habits and prior, outdated knowledge was normalized by supervisors who rewarded employees for keeping planes on schedule.
As a result of these troubling findings, the accident report recommended sweeping reviews of quality assurance at British Airways, including whether it was appropriate for employees to self-certify their own work, whether their “vital points” list was incomplete, and other shortcomings ranging from job descriptions to engineer training to product standards. It also recommended that maintenance engineers in the United Kingdom receive periodic retraining, just like pilots. It was this recommendation that proved the most critical because it essentially ensured that any unsafe engineering habits developed over a period of time are noticed and rectified whenever they renew their license.
Crew of British Airways Flight 5390 Hailed as Heroes for Working Together to Save Everyone Onboard
Following the terrifying ordeal onboard Flight 5390, First Officer Alastair Atchison and cabin crew members Susan Gibbins and Nigel Ogden were awarded the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air. Atchison was also awarded a 1992 Polaris Award for outstanding airmanship.
Out of all the cabin crew members, only chief steward John Heward kept flying. Although, he had to switch to working on larger aircraft. After being back on a plane with the same type of outer-attached windscreen, he experienced PTSD, and from then on, would only fly in planes that triggered no memories of the BAC-111 that was Flight 5390.
First Officer Alastair Atchison was hailed as a quick-thinking hero following the flight. Though he left British Airways shortly after the incident, he later joined Jet2 until he made his last commercial flight on a Boeing 737 on his 65th birthday in 2015.
And then we have Captain Tim Lancaster. Within five months of the events that happened on Flight 5390, he amazingly returned to flying. He eventually retired from British Airways, but loved flying so much, that he went to work for another airline until retiring for good in 2008. Of the remarkability of how he and his crew survived against all odds that fateful day in June 1990, he says simply, “Our names were on the list that day, but not at the top.”
And THAT is the incredible and heroic story of the crew of British Airways Flight 5390.