Can people get sucked out of airplanes?

Answers to your questions about the news.
April 13 2005 7:02 PM

Can We Get Sucked Out of Airplanes?

How explosive decompression works.

The prime minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, bruised her arm on Wednesday after the door of her six-seat airplane popped open in midflight. Two constables gained control of the door and were able to hold it closed until the plane landed. How'd they do that? Don't people get sucked out of holes in airplanes?

Only if the cabin is pressurized and the plane is flying at a high altitude. Clark was riding in the unpressurized cabin of a twin-engine Piper Aztec, at only 8,000 feet. Papers flew around, but nothing was sucked out through door of the aircraft. In fact, the prime minister said that air rushed into the cabin after the door blew open.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

At high altitudes, the thin air makes it hard to breathe unless the cabin is pressurized. In a jet plane, air from outside passes through compressors in the engines and then flows into the cabin at a higher pressure. Conditions inside the cabin are considered safe when they approximate an outside pressure at 8,000 feet or less. At high altitudes in an unpressurized cabin, pilots and passengers will eventually fall unconscious from lack of oxygen, or worse. This can take about half an hour at 18,000 feet or only a minute at 35,000 feet.

A blown-out door can be perilous for pressurized aircraft at high altitudes. In 1989, the lower cargo door on a United Airlines passenger jet became unlatched at about 23,000 feet. The sudden and explosive loss of pressure tore open a portion of the cabin—nine passengers were sucked out through the large hole, along with their seats and the floor around them.

The year before, a Boeing 737 operated by Aloha Airlines experienced an "explosive decompression" at 24,000 feet. An 18-foot portion of the roof of the cabin ripped off, and a flight attendant standing in the aisle was ejected from the plane.

In general, the more rapid the decompression, the more likely it is for someone to be sucked out of the aircraft. Three factors affect the rate of decompression: The volume of the cabin, the size of the opening, and the difference in pressure between the inside and outside of the plane. Smaller cabins will decompress more quickly than large ones, because the volume of pressurized air is smaller. Bigger holes also speed the process (something as small as a bullet hole might not pose a problem). And large differences in pressure, like those at very high altitudes, can exacerbate matters.

What else happens when a cabin undergoes explosive decompression? The sudden pressure change makes an explosive sound; the temperature in the cabin drops to match that of the frigid air outside the plane; and the combination of pressure loss with sudden cold produces a fog of water vapor. Passengers may experience the air being sucked out of their lungs, bloating of the abdomen, and the onset of frostbite, hypothermia, or decompression sickness. Holding one's breath during rapid decompression leads to far more severe effects.

Explainer thanks Doyle Peed of The MITRE Corporation.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.