Oh, What a Flight! - the Story of BA 5390 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Oh, What a Flight! - the Story of BA 5390

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Flight BA 5390 left Birmingham International Airport on Sunday, 10 June, 1990 en route to Malaga, Spain. The weather was fine and the crew and passengers were expecting the three-hour flight to be routine. However, an unfortunate event caused the flight not to reach its destination. Some serious skill and bravery gave cause for a celebration of one of the greatest recoveries in aviation history. Read on to be amazed by the turn of events onboard the BAC 1-11.

Prepare for Take-off

Everything was looking good when the 43-tonne aircraft left Birmingham International Airport one hour late at 7.20am for the short flight to Malaga. On board were two flight crew, four cabin crew and 81 passengers. Captain Tim Lancaster had flown with this crew on many occasions and was familiar with their routine; it was, however, his co-pilot's first outing with this group.

Some 13 minutes into the flight the aircraft was climbing through an altitude of 17,300 feet and was at that time over Didcot in Oxfordshire. The cabin crew were busy preparing the meals for the flight crew and passengers. Captain Lancaster removed his shoulder harness and his lap strap to prepare for his breakfast and, having engaged the autopilot, was about to leave Alistair Atcheson at the helm. Suddenly, the cabin pressure dropped rapidly as the aeroplane underwent what is known as explosive decompression.

How bad can it be?

In the aircraft, the passengers heard a loud bang and the fuselage quickly filled with a white mist of condensation. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling and loose papers and debris were drawn through the aircraft.

On the flight deck, however, the scene was even more shocking. The door had been sucked from its hinges and now lay across the radio and navigation console. The cause of the decompression was clearly visible - the left windscreen had blown out, allowing the higher pressure air inside the plane to blow out through the cockpit. Since Tim Lancaster had released both his seatbelts, he was partially sucked out of the now non-existent window and was pinned back against the roof of the cockpit. His shirt had been ripped off his back and his legs had become trapped in around the control column, forcing it forward. This action, while securing him in place, had released the autopilot and the plane began to dive and roll.

The first member of the cabin crew to happen upon this devastating scene was Nigel Ogden, who had been preparing the Captain's breakfast in the galley which was just on the other side of the cockpit door. He acted quickly and grabbed the Captain around the waist in an attempt to pull him back into the cabin. With a 400mph wind blowing through the plane the situation was dire to say the least, but Ogden persisted with his struggle to save the Captain, and the aircraft, by attempting to drag him back inside and release his feet from the control column.

Meanwhile, Alistair Atcheson had only released his shoulder harness, so was still in his seat attempting to re-engage it. As soon as he was secure, he began the fight with his control column to pull the aircraft out of the uncontrolled dive. He was also trying to communicate with a control tower to transmit a Mayday message, all this while a mini-tornado was blowing about the cockpit. Air Traffic Control could hear the call for help, but were unable to ascertain what the problem was.

The dive continued unabated while the aircraft plunged through some of the busiest air space in Europe, risking collision with any number of other flights.

Following a considerable struggle with the controls of the aircraft, and working in extreme conditions, Alistair Atcheson regained control. He managed to level the plane at 11,000 feet and reduce the speed to 180mph. At that height and speed there was no need for the oxygen masks as the air was breathable. This enabled him to re-instate the auto-pilot and establish a two-way communication with the control tower.

The Chief Steward, John Heward, removed the flight deck door and stored it in the nearest toilet, then strapped himself into the left observation seat where he held onto the Captain's feet to assist Nigel Ogden who was still clinging on.

The reduction of speed caused the Captain's rigid body to slide to the side of the aircraft where he could be seen by the remaining crew. All those on the flight deck could see that Captain Lancaster's eyes were open, but there was no sign of life. The temperature outside the plane was −17°C at most, and the wind shear would have decreased this temperature even further. Despite their best efforts, Ogden and Heward could not fight the elements to bring Captain Lancaster back into the cockpit. The three men on the flight deck exchanged a glance, and the co-pilot shook his head to confirm the negative, they should not let the Captain go1. In that instant they had decided that no matter what they would continue to cling to Tim Lancaster until they landed. While they had all assumed he was dead, the decision to try to hold on to him was more than about keeping his body for his family. There was a real danger, if they had let him go, that the wing or engine would be damaged, and his body was partially blocking the gaping hole where the left windscreen should have been.

Are We There Yet?

Alistair Atcheson had requested to land at Gatwick since he was familiar with it, but due to the congested airspace around both Gatwick and Heathrow, he was directed to land at Southampton Airport. Southampton was closer, but all the maps and charts had been lost in the blow-out, and having never landed there before, the co-pilot was obviously anxious about the prospect of making a good landing.

Nigel Ogden was by this time beginning to suffer from the effects of his exposure to the biting winds, but couldn't let go or change position for fear of losing the body of Captain Lancaster. Sue Prince and Simon Rodgers, the other cabin crew, had been attending to the passengers and preparing them for what could be a bumpy landing. Simon, on completing his duties in the cabin, went forward to the flight deck and changed places with Nigel who was very much weakened and distressed by his ordeal. During the exchange, Captain Lancaster slipped a further six to eight inches out of the plane.

Meanwhile, co-pilot Atcheson was still concerned with the prospect of a landing at Southampton. His major worries were that the runway was, at 1,800 metres, shorter than the recommended 2,200 metres for this aircraft, and the wings were still heavy with fuel, given that only 2,180kg of a 9,980kg initial load had been consumed on the aborted flight. With little option he began their descent.

At Southampton Airport, emergency services were scrambled for the arrival of Number One Traffic: BA flight 5390 with 87 souls on board2.Alistair Atcheson called upon all of his 7,500 hours of flying experience as he began the descent for landing. Surprisingly when the flight reached 300 feet, Captain Lancaster's legs began to kick giving some hope that he may survive the ordeal if the landing was successful.

The flight landed safely at 7.55am, and all passengers disembarked shocked but unhurt. The firemen and ambulance crew released Captain Lancaster through the cockpit, where he briefly regained consciousness before being taken to hospital.

With the heroic actions of the crew, and the extraordinary flying skills of the co-pilot, the flight recorded only one serious injury - that of Captain Lancaster who suffered a broken right arm and wrist, a broken left thumb, bruising, frostbite and shock. The only other recorded injuries were those of Nigel Ogden who suffered from frostbite, bruising and shock.

Accidents Don't Just Happen

The subsequent inquiry revealed that the windscreen had been replaced just 24 hours before the flight, and a number of errors in the procedure resulted in the wrong size bolts being used to fit the new window. Although the difference in size was minimal, some 200th of an inch, it was enough to cause the windscreen to blow out when the pressure differential became too great between the cabin and outside atmosphere. Obviously procedures are now in place to ensure such a thing can never happen again.

Where Are They Now?

  • Captain Lancaster survived relatively unscathed and he returned to work with British Airways some five months later, where he worked until his retirement. Following his retirement, he returned to captain flights for another airline.
  • Alistair Atcheson, who through his skill and presence of mind saved the flight, continued his career with British Airways. Modest to the end, he insisted he was just doing his job as he was trained to.
  • Nigel Ogden, who was instrumental in saving the captain, never returned to flying after this ordeal and who among us could blame him?
  • John Heward, the Chief Steward - who clung to the captain's feet throughout much of the flight - did return to flying, but has restricted himself to long-haul flights. Aircraft used in long-haul journeys bear no resemblance to the aircraft he spent the longest 22 minutes of his life on.
  • Susan Prince and Simon Rodgers also felt unable to return to their careers as cabin crew.
  • The entire crew were honoured for their actions in saving BA flight 5390 but the Gold Medal for Airmanship was awarded to Alistair Atcheson and there is no doubt it was richly deserved.

Finally, one of the most moving tributes to the crew was made when they returned to Birmingham International Airport - the entire concourse fell silent as they walked through, until it erupted with spontaneous applause to acknowledge the greatest respect for the dream team.

1The crew, with the exception of Alistair Atcheson, were interviewed for the television programme Air Crash Investigation, and discussed this decision quite openly.2This is a term used in the airline industry to establish how many living people there are on an aeroplane in distress. The number should include passengers, including infants who are not allocated a seat, crew, and guests in the jump seats. It will help emergency crews by letting them know how many people they are looking for should the aircraft crash, and distinguishes those alive from perhaps cadavers in the hold. It is also useful should a large passenger aircraft get into trouble with only the crew on board as it saves the emergency services searching for hundreds of survivors if there were perhaps only six souls on board.

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