Last week it was established that on any given flight there's a distinct possibility that a gaping hole might suddenly open in the roof of the plane, causing rapid decompression and forcing an emergency landing. But what if a hole opens up in a more important part of the plane, like, say, the cockpit? Turns out that happened once and sucked the damn pilot out the window--holy crap!
So British Airways Captain Tim Lancaster and co-captain Alistair Atcheson were flying a planeful of passengers from Birmingham, England, to Malaga, Spain, on the morning of June 10, 1990, when flight attendant Nigel Ogden came in to offer the pilots a spot of tea.
That's when things went horribly wrong.
As Ogden recounts:
I was just stepping out, with my hand on the door handle, when there was an enormous explosion and the door was blown out of my hands. I thought, "My God. It's a bomb." Explosive decompression made the whole cabin mist up like fog for a second - then the plane started to plummet.
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.
Not wasting any time, Ogden sprung into action.
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, Alistair, the co-pilot, was still wearing his safety harness from take-off, otherwise he would have gone, too.
So with the pilot hanging out the window, possibly dead, and the plane plummeting toward the ground, Ogden held on. He describes benefiting from being an avid rugby player (typical Brit), but despite his strength, he could feel his arms "being pulled out of their sockets."
That's when steward Simon Rogers came rushing in and grabbed a hold of Lancaster too.
Simon came rushing through and, with John, unwrapped Tim's legs and the remains of the doors from the controls, and Alistair got the autopilot back on. But he continued to increase speed, to lessen the risk of a mid-air collision and to get us down to an altitude where there was more oxygen. He dived to 11,000 feet in 2 minutes, then got the speed down to 300kmh.
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.
I couldn't hold on any more, so Simon strapped himself into the third pilot's seat and hooked Tim's feet over the back of the captain's seat and held on to his ankles. One of the others said: "We're going to have to let him go." I said: "I'll never do that." I knew I wouldn't be able to face his family, handing them a matchbox and saying: "This is what is left of your husband." If we'd let go of his body, it might have got jammed in a wing or the engines.
The stalemate of flight attendants and stewards holding on to Lancaster while the co-pilot tried to bring the plane lower and slow it down enough continued for some time.
And as they approached an airport for an emergency landing, Ogden, taking a break from holding onto the pilot's legs while Rogers took over, tried to comfort terrified passengers and was asked a rather direct question.
I remember one man at the very back, with a little baby on his knee, saying to me: "We're going to die," and I said, "No, we are not," lying through my teeth.
Turns out that Ogden wasn't lying. The co-pilot was able to land the plane safely and Lancaster, whose body had essentially "shut down" during the ordeal, was brought back inside the plane with several fractures, some serious frostbite, but otherwise OK.
Flight 5390 crew members with Lancaster after the ordeal.
Lancaster recovered and went on to continue his career as a pilot, first with BA, then with EasyJet.
Ogden did the flight-attendant thing for a few more years, but suffered PTSD and retired early, becoming a night watchman at The Salvation Army.
The reason for the windshield malfunction was later attributed to an overworked mechanic who fitted it with bolts that were too small.
So there you go: The next time a massive hole opens in an aircraft, just pray it doesn't suck anyone out. But if it does, grab hold of them and hold on like the dickens, and everything will turn out OK.