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Pilot out the window

In 1990 a British Airways plane heading to Spain had a windscreen malfunction mid-flight. The captain was sucked out of the gap, but a flight attendant caught his belt and the plane landed safely with the captain stuck halfway outside.

Flight 5390
Rob Hodgkins, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Flight 5390 out of Birmingham, England, got a new windscreen soon before a scheduled flight to Málaga, Spain. But when that windscreen was bolted to the front of the plane, someone used bolts that were either too small or too short. This turned out to be a problem.

More than five kilometres up, thirteen minutes into the flight, the bolts came loose. The air pressure difference yanked the edge of windscreen off the plane. The result was what I believe is called “uncontrolled decompression.” The captain (who had just loosened his seatbelt) was sucked out of the gap, and it was only through the quick thinking of a flight attendant that he didn’t leave the aircraft completely.

So here’s the situation: the captain and chief pilot is halfway out the front window. A flight attendant is holding onto his belt and legs; everything above the captain’s waist is exposed to the elements. His ankles are entangled in the flight controls. The autopilot has been disabled. A cabin door blown inwards by the decompression has engaged the aircraft’s forward throttle, so the plane is speeding up and descending fast. The wind rushing into the flight deck is so loud that no-one can hear or respond to anyone on the radio.

Everyone assumed that the captain was dead. There’s not a lot of oxygen or warmth five kilometres up. But they held on regardless – bird strike can be dangerous for a plane’s engines, but can you imagine pilot strike? Eventually the co-pilot and cabin crew managed to disentangle the captain’s ankles from the controls, re-engage the autopilot, make out the instructions from air traffic control, and land the plane.

Incredibly, the captain survived with only moderate injuries and frostbite. The co-pilot and two of the cabin crew received medals for their quick-thinking and bravery under (de)pressure.

[Thanks to Gareth E. for suggesting this topic. He found out about it from an article in The Scottish Sun newspaper, but I’m not going to link to that article because it’s The Sun.]

Categories: Europe History Modern history Places Sciences Technology

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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