What to Do When Your Pilot Gets Sucked Out the Plane Window

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It was a routine day at the Birmingham, England airport in 1990. The British Airways crew had gotten up early to prepare for a trip to Malaga, Spain. About 13 minutes into the flight, flight attendant Nigel Ogden walked into the cockpit to offer the captain Tim Lancaster and co-captain Alistair Atcheson a cup of tea. As he was walking out, the plane was rocked by an explosion. He turned around and this is what he saw, as he told it to the Sydney Morning Herald's Julia Llewellyn Smith.

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, Alistair, the co-pilot, was still wearing his safety harness from take-off, otherwise he would have gone, too.

The aircraft was losing height so quickly the pressure soon equalised and the wind started rushing in - at 630kmh and -17C. Paper was blowing round all over the place and it was impossible for Alistair to hear air-traffic control. We were spiralling down at 80 feet per second with no autopilot and no radio.

Ogden could feel his arms being pulled out of their sockets. And because of the altitude, it was extremely cold. (Ogden would suffer frostbite from the flight.) The co-pilot managed to get the autopilot back on and the plane came back under their control. Nonetheless, the pilot was still stuck outside the window of the plane.

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.

I left Simon hanging on to Tim and staggered back into the main cabin. For a moment, I just sat totally exhausted in a jump seat, my head in my hands, then Sue came up to me, very shaken. In front of all the passengers, I put my arms around her and whispered in her ear: "I think the Captain's dead." But then I said: "Come on, love, we've got a job to do."

Believe it or not, everything turned out OK. Eighteen minutes after the explosion, they were back safe on the ground. Some people were frostbitten and a little banged up, but they survived. This amazing anecdote got dredged up Business Insider's Henry Blodget in the wake of the recent Southwest Airlines in-flight decompression incident.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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