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The Most Bizarre Flight in History: British Airways Flight 5309

Air travel is relatively safe, and while you are more likely to be injured or die on the roads, there is something far more terrifying about air disasters.

In June 1990, 81 passengers boarded a flight, thinking they would be in sunny Spain in a few hours. Unfortunately, tragedy struck just minutes into their flight.

The aftermath of British Airways Flight 5309 forced companies to be more stringent with their safety rules and highlighted the significant failings of one particular airport.

The aircraft involved in the accident photographed in 1989. Photo by Rob Hodgkins.

Before The Incident

June 10th 1990, started like any other day for the crew of BA Flight 5309. The flight was from Birmingham, England, to Malaga, Spain, a popular holiday destination for Brits seeking sunshine.

Early that morning, pilot Captain Tim Lancaster and his co-pilot, First Officer Alistair Atchison, arrived at the lounge ready for another flight.

They were joined by stewards Nigel Ogden, Simon Rogers, John Heward, and Sue Prince, an experienced and well-prepared crew.

Tim Lancaster and Alistair Atchison were in charge of a BAC One-Eleven 528FL jetliner that morning. Shortly before 08:00, the plane taxied to the runway, and the crew onboard began preparations for take off.

Passengers buzzed with excitement as they were just minutes away from starting their holiday; little did they know they were, in fact, just minutes away from being in a living nightmare.

At 08:20, Alistair began take-off procedures as directed by air traffic control.

According to Alistair and Tim, everything seemed normal. The controls were handed back to Tim (the captain), and the plane continued to climb as it soared across the midlands.

By 08:33, the plane had reached an acceptable altitude of 17,000 feet. Both Alistair and Tim removed their harnesses and seat belts, and the stewards were prompted to begin their trolley service.

As it was an early morning flight, breakfast foods, tea, coffee and alcohol were offered.

Decompression In The Cabin

There was a loud bang just as the stewards began to roll their trolley down the aisles to service the 81 passengers. Nigel Ogden, one of the flight attendants, was making his way to the cockpit when the loud bang occurred.

By this time, the plane had climbed an additional 300 feet and was over the town of Didcot in Oxfordshire. Nigel couldn’t believe his eyes when the doors to the cockpit opened.

The captain, Tim Lancaster, was on the outside of the plane, holding on for dear life.

Alistair quickly explained how, just moments earlier, the side panel window on Tim’s side had been propelled out by the air pressure before decompression swept through the plane.

This propelled Captain Tim upward and outward. Tim was now on the outside of the plane, with only his feet hanging onto a piece of metal in the centre console.

A reconstruction of the event created by discovery as part of a documentary.

While Alistair desperately tried to control the plane, Nigel held onto Tim, ensuring he didn’t fly off further.

The decompression caused debris and objects to fly through the cabin and cockpit, creating a hail of screws, nuts and bolts. The decompression also caused another issue: the flight deck door had been blown inward, blocking the plane’s throttle control.

As the plane descended, it was still picking up speed and hurtling to the ground in record time. Whilst Nigel and Alistair battled to keep Tim alive, the other stewards rushed around the panicked passengers.

The plane was being tossed up, down, and left to right. Alert and warning lights flashed an angry red. As air crash investigators would come to find, the plane did not have sufficient oxygen onboard to sustain the 81 passengers and 6 crew.

Alistair now had the balance of life and death in his hands. His captain was hanging out of the window, being held onto by his legs.

There were dozens of passengers onboard who had no idea what was happening. Thankfully, they were able to dislodge the door covering the throttle control, and Alistair slowly regained control.

Nigel had been holding onto Tim now for several minutes, and he reported extreme pain in his arms. He was also experiencing frostbite from the bitter temperatures outside. Not wanting further casualties, Simon and John took over.

By now, the plane was not hurtling to the ground at break-neck speed, and Alistair was slowly regaining compression in the cabin. The plane was sailing smoother, but many issues were still at hand.

Simon and John had managed to hook Tim’s legs over his seat and held onto him that way to avoid frostbite. Everyone in the cockpit knew that even just the tiniest slip could cause a major air disaster.

If Tim let go or slipped, he could have been sucked into one of the plane’s engines, causing it to fail. This would have undoubtedly resulted in many casualties.

Sue Prince continued her way through the cabin, consoling passengers, promising them the situation was under control. In reality, Sue was probably as afraid as they were of what would come next.

Mayday Signal Is Placed

At around 08:50, Alistair placed a ‘mayday’ signal to air traffic control radios in the area. According to Alistair, this first mayday signal was unsuccessful; at least, he believed so at the time.

The sound of the wind hurtling through the cabin was far too noisy to hear his radio over. Even as he screamed, he felt his cries were falling on deaf ears.

As he slowly regained a comfortable altitude and control, he was able to hear as the wind direction had switched.

Meanwhile, Tim, Simon and John were not out of the woods. Whilst Tim was now stable, he was covered in frostbite, and his head was being repeatedly slammed against the side of the fuselage.

His fate remained unknown, but Simon and John continued to hold onto him, hoping for a miracle. Minutes later, Southampton Airport responded to Alistair’s mayday call and told him the plane could land there.

There were concerns that the BA Flight 5309 was too big for the landing strip, but given the situation, Southampton had to do something to help.

Alistair had logged around 7,500 hours, whilst Tim had clocked over 11,000. Alistair was by no means a junior, but this 2 pilot craft relied on two pilots working in harmony.

Alistair had never landed at Southampton before, making the landing all the more complicated. To add to his complications, all of the safety documents and guidance books had been thrown out of the window when the decompression hit.

Alistair also had the job of telling and convincing Southampton Airport that his pilot was hanging out of the window by his ankles.

At first, I’m sure the air traffic controllers at Southampton thought somebody had tuned into their frequency and was pranking them, but the panic and desperation in Alistair’s voice quickly made it apparent that this was no joke.

BA Flight 5309 was cleared to land, and at 08:55, Alistair Atchison landed the plane safely at Southampton Airport.

The Medical Aftermath

The plane was immediately taxied to the side of the runway as paramedic crews dashed to Tim. He was carefully removed from the side window and put onto a stretcher.

External photograph taken of the cockpit following the incident. Photo by Murray Sanders/Daily Mail/Shuttershock.

His colleagues looked on in shock, not knowing if Tim was alive or dead, but then, as they saw him move, they breathed a sigh of relief. Passengers were checked over by medical staff and taken to a quiet area of the airport.

Many of the passengers had witnessed, or at least heard, the screams of Tim and passengers up front who shouted, “The pilot is hanging out of the window.”

Incredibly, none of the passengers onboard BA Flight 5309 suffered any injuries and were safely transferred to another flight.

Nigel Ogden, the man who had initially responded to the accident, walked away with his life, suffering frostbite, a dislocated shoulder and PTSD. Most amazingly of all, Tim Lancaster survived his ordeal.

He, again, walked away with his life and had frostbite, several broken bones and lots of bumps and scratches.

Doctors ordered Tim to remain in the hospital for several weeks as the worst of his injuries, frostbite, healed.

The incident made national and worldwide news, with everyone in disbelief that a human could withstand such conditions and walk away with frostbite and a few broken bones.

Another question that was left lingering was how this could happen. Anyone who has worked with planes or knows someone who has knows how rigorous the safety checks are.

The AAIB Investigation Begins

In 1992, the Department of Transport’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch ordered a report into BA Flight 5309, and this is where things got technical. On June 8th/9th, 1990, the captain’s side’s windshield was replaced and secured by 90 bolts.

The investigation identified the bolts at the scene as being A211-8C, with 4 being old, reused A211-7D. According to the manual of the specific type of aircraft that BA5309 was, the plane needed A211-8D bolts.

Whilst such a minor distinction between bolt numbers and sort may seem insignificant to most, here is what the report outlined.

“The replacement windscreen had been installed with 84 bolts (A211-8C) whose diameters were approximately 0.026 of an inch below the diameters of the specified bolts, but of the same thread pitch, and six bolts (A211-7D) which were of the correct diameter, but of 0.1 of an inch too short.”

The report highlighted inadequacies in the maintenance and repairs department of the Birmingham Airport and how negligent employees – mainly the shift manager – had failed to read critical safety paperwork and ensure the suitable screws were used.

According to some reports, the screws and bolts needed were not present, so they used the next best thing, thinking nothing would come of it.

In the report, the AAIB also noted, “The workload for all levels of management at Birmingham was high; the Area Manager did not monitor the day-to-day work practices of his subordinates, but relied on the trending of parameters such as numbers of Acceptable Deferred Defects, repeated defects and failures to meet schedules as indicators of quality.”

The culture within Birmingham was something of a concern for the AAIB; the maintenance and repairs section worked to tight schedules, 24/7, 365 days a year.

Each flight has a small window of when it is allowed to take off, as dictated by air traffic control, whose job is keeping the skies and runways of airports safe.

One manager commented that work had to be done fast, which meant cutting corners. If they were to comply with every single regulation and practice, they would ultimately run hours behind, which garnered pressure from upper management and pilots.

There were deemed to be critical failings that June morning and the report also highlighted other aircraft (same models) that had been fitted with the wrong screws – luckily, these were caught before a severe accident could occur.

In their conclusion, the AAIB noted a lack of oversight from managers. The window that had been fitted had not been checked by a second pair of eyes, who would have clearly noticed that the bolts and screws holding the window in place could be pulled right out of their holes.

Five months later, Tim Lancaster returned to British Airways as a Captain. Many were stunned at his bravery and resilience to overcome such a tragic event only to get back into a plane.

The rest of the crew continued their careers in the skies, too. The accident undoubtedly shaped their lives, the passengers’ lives, and how engineers operate at airports across the UK.

This incident ushered in countless new laws and policies to ensure that something like this would never happen again.


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