Like all airlines, British Airways has experienced a dreadful 2020, dogged by a virus that has devoured the demand for travel, and left airports looking like post-Gold Rush ghost towns in the California hills. However, if there is one small thing that the UK’s flag-carrier can say in favour of this dark year, it is that it has not thrown up an incident quite as dramatic or unnerving as that which occurred three decades ago, in the summer of 1990.
The story of BA Flight 5390 remains one of the strangest, most disturbing and most astounding moments in the airline’s history. That it chimes with all three of these descriptions simultaneously reveals much about a perilous 22 minutes that could have led to conflagration and recrimination – but which, thanks to swift thinking, considerable heroism and survival instinct, has become a story to be recounted with a sigh and a smile.
The day began normally enough. The departure was as unexceptional as any from a British airport that Wednesday – leaving Birmingham at 8.20am; an early-bird worm-catching endeavour, bound for Malaga. The date was June 20.
On board were 87 people – six crew members, and 81 passengers. Many of them were rushing south for a welcome dose of sunshine on the Spanish shoreline, knowing the beaches would be significantly quieter that week than they would a month later, when the school year had finished.
However, if gentle relaxation was what most of those travellers had in mind, their morning would deal in quite the opposite.
The aircraft – a BAC-111 with the name County of South Glamorgan – took off smoothly. However, 13 minutes into the flight, as it passed above Didcot in Oxfordshire at about 17,300ft (5,300m), it suffered a malfunction that might have sent it spiralling to its doom.
Read more: The Telegraph