How a Pilot Survived 20 Minutes Outside a Commercial Jet In Flight



Explosive decompression can cause a serious threat to life onboard an aircraft. Such incidents are rare, but one stands out as a particularly incredible story of survival. On June 10, 1990, British Airways Flight 5390 took off from Birmingham Airport in England, with a destination of Malaga Airport in Spain. The captain was 42-year-old Timothy Lancaster and the co-pilot was 39-year-old Alastair Atchison. The plane had climbed to about 17,000 feet and the cabin crew were preparing for meal service, but when flight attendant Nigel Ogden entered the cockpit there was a loud bang. The left windscreen panel had separated from the forward fuselage. Captain Lancaster was propelled out of his seat by the rushing air from the decompression and forced head first out of the flight deck. His knees were caught on the flight control and his upper torso remained outside the aircraft, exposed to extreme wind and cold. Ogden rushed to grab Lancaster’s belt, while co-pilot Atchison began a rapid emergency descent and broadcast a distress call. Ogden, still holding on to Lancaster, was by now developing frostbite and exhaustion, so purser John Heward and flight attendant Simon Rogers took over the task of holding onto the captain. The plane was eventually given clearance to land, and flight attendants managed to free Lancaster’s ankles from the flight controls. Captain Lancaster survived with frostbite, bruising, shock and fractures to his right arm, right wrist and left thumb. Ogden dislocated his shoulder and had frostbite on his face, with damage to one eye. There were no other major injuries. An investigation of the incident revealed that the windscreen was installed 27 hours before the flight, but the bolts used were too small. The undersized bolts were unable to withstand the air pressure difference between the cabin and the outside atmosphere during the flight. 
 
Captain Timothy Lancaster (in bed) recovering in Southampton General Hospital after his terrifying ordeal. With him are crew members (left to right) Alistair Atchison, John Howard, Nigel Ogden, Susan Prince and Simon Rogers