How a Captain Got Sucked Out Of a Exploded Cockpit Window and Everyone Survived

There are times in which an airplane decompression may not be dangerous. But when your captain literally has half of his body out of one of the cockpit window, his face "banging against the window [from the outside] with blood coming out of his nose and the side of his head", all while the plane—with 81 passengers en route to sunny Málaga, Spain from Birmingham, England—is " spiralling down at 80 feet per second with no autopilot and no radio"... well, maybe then it is time to panic.

That's exactly what happened to Tim Lancaster on flight BA5390, when he was piloting a 43-tonne British Airways BAC 1-11 airliner at 17,000 feet, on June 10, 1990.

Fortunately, Nigel Ogden—a flight attendant who was getting out of the cockpit when the windshield blew away—didn't lose his cool. As the explosive decompression "made the whole cabin mist up like fog for a second" and the "plane started to plummet", Nigel thought it was a bomb. Later, it was discovered that the cause for the explosive decompression was an improperly installed window pane, which has been replaced 27 hours before the flight. When Nigel turned around, the scene was terrifying:

I whipped round and saw the front windscreen had disappeared and Tim, the pilot, was going out through it. He had been sucked out of his seatbelt and all I could see were his legs. I jumped over the control column and grabbed him round his waist to avoid him going out completely. His shirt had been pulled off his back and his body was bent upwards, doubled over round the top of the aircraft. His legs were jammed forward, disconnecting the autopilot, and the flight door was resting on the controls, sending the plane hurtling down at nearly 650kmh through some of the most congested skies in the world.

Everything was being sucked out of the aircraft: even an oxygen bottle that had been bolted down went flying and nearly knocked my head off. I was holding on for grim death but I could feel myself being sucked out, too. John rushed in behind me and saw me disappearing, so he grabbed my trouser belt to stop me slipping further, then wrapped the captain's shoulder strap around me. Luckily, Alastair, the co-pilot, was still wearing his safety harness from take-off, otherwise he would have gone, too [take notes, Ryanair—JD].

Soon, the pressure equalized, but Tim was still out of the plane and the wind start getting in the cabin at about 630km/h (391mph) and -17ºC (1.4ºF). The co-pilot struggled to gain control of the plane and he did it, taking down to 11,000 feet in two minutes—where there was more oxygen. But Nigel was still holding Tim and the situation was still critical. The plane may have been stabilized, but the captain was still hanging out of it.

I was still holding Tim, but my arms were getting weaker, and then he slipped. I thought I was going to lose him, but he ended up bent in a U-shape around the windows. His face was banging against the window with blood coming out of his nose and the side of his head, his arms were flailing and seemed about 6 feet [1.8 metres] long. Most terrifyingly, his eyes were wide open. I'll never forget that sight as long as I live.

Amazingly, with the help of another flight attendant, they were able to pull him back. And even more amazing: Tim as more or less ok, frostbitten and with some bones fractured, but alive. In fact, back in 2005 he was still in active, flying for EasyJet. The BA plane landed without any other problem—even while they feared that a catastrophe could happen if there was more damage. It was 07:55. Only 18 minutes had passed from the explosive decompression till the planed landed on Runway 02 at Southampton Airport. To everyone in that cockpit, it felt like hours.

Read the whole account as told by Nigel to Julia Llewellyn Smith in the Sydney Morning Herald. [SMH and Wikipedia via The Atlantic]