- Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 suffered an engine failure that smashed a plane window, sucking a passenger halfway out of the plane in midair.
- Passenger planes are pressurised to an equivalent of about 8,000 feet above sea level. At cruising altitude, about 36,000 feet, the air pressure is much lower.
- Air pressure has a tendency to equalise, so when a hole is ripped in the plane, it causes a strong sucking force that originates outside the aircraft.
The flight, travelling from New York to Dallas, was forced to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia, and the passenger – a 43-year-old woman named Jennifer Riordan – died Tuesday at a hospital. It was the first fatality in a US passenger plane accident in nine years.
Passengers on the flight described how, after the explosion sent shrapnel into one of the plane’s windows, Riordan was pulled halfway out of aircraft. “The top half of her torso was out the window,” Max Kraidelman, a passenger on the flight, told The New York Times.
While passengers were able to pull Riordan back into the plane, another passenger was said to have felt “severe pressure” after positioning his back against the opening in the cabin in an attempt to seal it.
When there’s an opening in an aeroplane during flight (regardless of the cause), the plane will undergo rapid depressurization.
Commercial aeroplane cabins are generally pressurised to an equivalent of 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, according to the World Heath Organisation, in an effort to maintain a healthy oxygen level for both the passengers and the flight crew.
But the pressure outside the cabin – when a passenger jet is flying at a cruising altitude of over 36,000 feet – is much lower than inside the pressurised cabin.
Air pressure has a tendency to equalise, moving from areas of high pressure to low pressure to achieve equilibrium. When a hole rips open on a plane, the suction resulting from the pressure difference between the cabin and the sky could pull nearby people or objects outside.
Depending on the size of the hole, such accidents could either create just enough force to shuffle papers around, or, as in the case of the Southwest incident, pull a full-size human out of the plane, according to Seeker.
Survival is unlikely for anyone fully sucked out into the sky. The human body is unlikely to survive a fall from that height, and a person would most likely lose consciousness quickly because of the low oxygen levels at cruising altitude. The Southwest flight on Tuesday deployed oxygen masks for passengers after the engine explosion.
The temperature outside at cruising altitude can also be as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, which could immediately freeze a passenger’s skin and cause the person’s heart rate and nervous system to go into shock, Peter Wagner, a physician at the University of California at San Diego, told Seeker.
While in-flight incidents are extremely rare, if you want to survive a crash, research suggests the best place to sit is in a middle seat toward the back of the plane.
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