Understanding Air Safety in the Jet Age/Hanging on by the Fingertips - British Airways Flight 5390

When British Airways Flight 5390 took off from Birmingham Airport for the short hop to Málaga nobody could have predicted the dramatic events that would follow 15 minutes later. Extraordinary airmanship and courage from the crew would return the BAC One-Eleven, registration GBJRT, to the ground with no loss of life. The captain was 42-year-old Tim Lancaster, who had logged 11,050 flight hours, including 1,075 hours on the BAC One-eleven; the copilot was 39-year-old Alastair Atchison, with 7,500 flight hours, with 1,100 of them on the BAC One-eleven. Atchison would need every hour of that experience to save the 81 passengers and four cabin crew.

After a routine take-off at 08:20, the plane climbed out of Birmingham. With everything normal, both pilots released their shoulder harnesses and Captain Lancaster loosened his lap belt. By 08:33 the plane had climbed through about 17,300 ft and was passing over Oxfordshire. The cabin crew began preparing the meal service. Checking in with the flight crew, Air Steward Nigel Ogden had just entered the cockpit when there was a loud bang as the left windscreen panel, in front of Captain Lancaster, exploded outwards, decompressing the plane and filling the cabin with condensation. With his seat belt loose, 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 controls and his upper torso remained outside the aircraft, exposed to extreme wind and cold. To make matters worse, the autopilot disengaged, causing the plane to descend rapidly. The decompression had also blown the flight deck door onto the control console, blocking the throttle control and causing the aircraft to gain speed as it descended. Adding to the confusion, papers and debris blew into the flight deck from the passenger cabin. Reacting with astonishing speed, Ogden grabbed Lancaster's belt, preventing him from being dragged out of the plane - something that would have both killed the captain and imperilled the plane if his body had impacted the wings or engines. Meanwhile the other two air stewards secured loose objects, reassured passengers, and instructed them to adopt brace position] in anticipation of an emergency landing.

Atchison had taken control immediately after the decompression and continued the emergency descent to reach an altitude with sufficient air pressure. Once low enough, he re-engaged the autopilot and broadcast a distress call, requesting clearance for an immediate approach to the nearest airport, but he was unable to hear the response from air traffic control because of wind noise; the difficulty in establishing two-way communication led to a delay in initiation of emergency procedures.

Ogden was still holding on to Lancaster, but was reaching the limit of his endurance and was developing frostbite. Chief steward John Heward and air steward Simon Rogers took over the task of holding on to the captain. By this time Lancaster had shifted several inches farther outside and his head was repeatedly striking the side of the fuselage. The crew believed him to be dead, but Atchison told the others to continue holding onto him, out of fear that letting go of him might cause him to strike the left wing, engine, or horizontal stabiliser, potentially damaging it.

Eventually, Atchison was able to hear the clearance from air traffic control to make an emergency landing at Southampton Airport. The air stewards managed to free Lancaster's ankles from the flight controls while still keeping hold of him. At 08:55 , the aircraft landed at Southampton and the passengers disembarked using boarding steps. Miraculously, Lancaster survived with relatively minor injuries: frostbite, bruising, shock, and fractures to his right arm, left thumb and right wrist. Later Atchison and cabin crew members Susan Gibbins and Nigel Ogden were awarded the Queen's Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air for their actions.

Police found the windscreen panel and many of the 90 bolts securing it near Cholsey, Oxfordshire. Investigators found that when the windscreen was installed 27 hours before the flight, 84 of the bolts used were too small in diamter and the remaining six were the correct diameter but too short. How had such an error occurred? The previous windscreen had also been fitted using incorrect bolts, which were replaced by the shift maintenance manager on a like-for-like basis without reference to maintenance documentation, as the plane was due to depart shortly. The undersized bolts were unable to withstand the air pressure difference between the cabin and the outside atmosphere during flight. The final report was particularly telling. Not only had the shift maintenance manager responsible for installing the incorrect bolts failed to follow British Airways policies but he had not been wearing his normal spectacles, which impacted his ability to read the documentation. The policies compounded the problem by not requiring supervision or checking of work. Without extraordinary luck, and incredible airmanship, 87 people could have lost their lives due to a failure to wear glasses.