What Happens When Someone Tries to Open an Airplane Door Mid Flight?

There's bad news and good news.

Blame it on the frustration of being in a confined space, or seated next to terrible seatmates. But every so often, a passenger feels compelled to attempt something completely irrational on a flight. That irrational behavior can seem quite terrifying when, as in a couple of recent news-making incidents, the passenger attempts to open an airplane's door mid-flight.

Just last month the Washington Post reported the bizarre drama that played out when Delta passengers and crew smashed wine bottles on a man who was attempting to pry open the exit door of a plane flying from Seattle to Beijing. The man seemed initially unfazed, before eventually being overpowered and zip-tied.

Earlier this week someone was at it again on an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. In what was described as "a crazy experience" with "a lot of yelling and screaming," passengers told CBS News that a man wearing sunglasses tried to grab the handle of the plane's exit door until the efforts of both passengers and crew managed to subdue him.

Understandably these incidents created a lot of panic. But what would really happen if someone was able to open the door mid flight? 

Well, here's the bad news first. Sudden decompression — a rapid drop in pressure inside the sealed space of an airplane, hypothetically caused by opening a door — would mean, according to the Daily Telegraph, that "anyone standing near the exit would be ejected into the sky; the cabin temperature would quickly plummet to frostbite-inducing levels, and the plane itself might even begin to break apart." Such horrifying scenarios are not the reserve of movies like Iron Man 3.

As the Telegraph reminds us, "In 1988, an Aloha Airlines flight ... with 90 people on board was en route to Honolulu, cruising at an altitude of 24,000 feet, when a small section of the roof ruptured. The resulting 'explosive' decompression tore off a larger section of the roof, and a 57-year-old flight attendant called Clarabelle Lansing was swept from her seat and out of the hole in the aircraft." Truly the stuff nightmares are made of.

But now for the good news. That hypothetical mid-flight door opening scenario is probably never going to happen.

“Cabin pressure won’t allow it,” Patrick Smith, pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, writes on his website Ask the Pilot. “Think of an aircraft door as a drain plug, fixed in place by the interior pressure. Almost all aircraft exits open inward. Some retract upward into the ceiling; others swing outward; but they open inward first. At a typical cruising altitude, up to eight pounds of pressure are pushing against every square inch of interior fuselage. That’s over 1,100 pounds against each square foot of door.” In other words, you would have to have super-human strength to be able to open the door, which is to say, it's pretty much impossible. 

It's a different story, however, if someone tries to open a door while the plane is on the ground, "as one would hope," Smith points out, "with the possibility of an evacuation in mind. During taxi, you will get the door to open. You will also activate the door’s emergency escape slide." This particular on-the-ground scenario, however, seems to be favored by flight attendants rather than unruly passengers: as these memorable incidents on JetBlue and United remind us.

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