Tributes to the reluctant hero of Flight 5390
Retiring pilot’s actions the stuff of legend
IT sounds like a breathtaking action scene right out of a Hollywood blockbuster. But, incredibly, this was no movie. Just moments after take- off, the poorly-fitted cockpit window of BA Flight 5390 blew out, sucking the passenger jet’s captain Timothy Lancaster with it.
As he dangled from the side of the aircraft at 17,300ft – cabin crew desperately clinging to his legs – co-pilot Alastair Atchison took control and steered the stricken plane to land.
Against all the odds, Mr Lancaster survived, suffering only a broken arm, frostbite and shock.
And today, as Mr Atchison begins his retirement, tributes were paid to him by the man whose life he saved two- and- a-half decades ago.
“Alastair is a smashing chap,” said Mr Lancaster, 66, now a grandad-of-five.
“He did a smashing job and we’re all very grateful to him that we’re still here 25 years down the road.”
Last week, Mr Atchison made his last flight as a professional pilot, going from Alicante to Manchester with budget airline Jet2.com.
The skilled yet calm hero, now 60, is too modest to speak about his crucial role in the events of June 10, 1990.
But the dramatic escape has become legendary in the aviation world and is even studied by trainee pilots.
The BAC 1- 11 carrying 81 passengers had just completed its takeoff from Birmingham when the drama began.
Flight attendant Nigel Ogden walked in to the cockpit to offer the pilots a cup of tea, when there was a large bang and the plane rocked.
Mr Ogden turned and saw a front window pane was missing and Captain Lancaster disappearing though it.
The incident had also caused the autopilot to switch off, sending the plane into a steep plunge.
Mr Ogden grabbed hold of the captain’s legs and held on despite first being battered by the suction out of the cockpit, then - 17C wind rushing in at nearly 400mph as the cabin pressure dropped.
Mr Atchison could not hear air traffic control over the din and was said to be new to this model of plane but, somehow, just 18 minutes later he had guided it safely down at Southampton Airport.
The crew initially thought Captain Lancaster was dead but he came round and was whisked to hospital where it was found he was suffering from relatively minor injuries.
The fault had been caused by the wrong- sized bolts being used to replace the window pane.
Mr Lancaster, of Wantage, Oxfordshire, who retired from BA in 2003 and flew with easyJet until 2008, said the incident shaped air safety. “The great thing about the aviation industry is it always learns from its mistakes and puts them right,” he explained.
“Although it was an incident we didn’t want, mistakes were made, lessons were learned, procedures were changed and investigation and modification of the systems took place – and it won’t happen again.”
Industry publication Aviation Daily paid tribute to Mr Atchison’s skill as a pilot, describing him as “a remarkable man who saved the lives of everybody on board – an aviation legend in our book”.
■ A grateful Timothy with wife Margaret.