What Happens if you Open the Plane Door During a Flight?

Ever felt the overwhelming urge to yank the door open on an aircraft? Here's what would happen.

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It’s one of the nervous flier’s (numerous) nightmare scenarios. A potty fellow passenger makes a beeline for the emergency exit and yanks the door open, sending themselves, and any unsecured trolley dollies and holidaymakers, spinning into the stratosphere.

Should such a lunatic actually manage to open the door of a large passenger aircraft at high altitude, the cabin would lose pressure – extremely rapidly – and chaos would ensue.

Even instances of slow decompression can be fatal. In 2005 a Boeing 737 operated by Helios Airways crashed, killing all 121 passengers and crew (the deadliest air disaster in Greek history), after a gradual loss of cabin pressure. The lack of oxygen at 30,000 feet left the crew incapacitated, and the plane – on auto-pilot – slowly ran out of fuel, before plunging to the ground.

In such instances, oxygen masks (with enough oxygen to last several minutes) should drop from the ceiling to stave off hypoxia (a lack of oxygen, which leads to sluggish thinking, dimmed visions, unconsiousness and then death). In the cockpit, the flight crew will don their rubber masks and begin a rapid descent to a safe altitude – anything below 10,000ft (mountainous obstacles notwithstanding).

Sudden decompression, which would occur if a plane door was suddenly thrust open, is another matter. 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. In 1988, an Aloha Airlines flight (also a Boeing 737) 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. Luckily, all other passengers were belted up, and the pilot managed to land 13 minutes later, avoiding further loss of life. Dozens of other examples of explosive decompression have been recorded, and it often doesn’t end well. And let’s not forget the demise of James Bond’s nemesis Goldfinger (see video below).

Fortunately, while decompression can be dangerous, it is not going to happen because a fellow flier fancied a bit of fresh air for one simple reason: it is simply impossible to open a plane door during a flight.

“Cabin pressure won’t allow it,” explains Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, a book about air travel. “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.

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