Many flier’s worse fear is a plane crash. And if you have watched movies with plane crash scenes, you would have seen scenes where people are being sucked out as the plane crashes down towards the Earth.
In this article, we will explore the dangers of being sucked out of an aircraft in a physics point of view. While it is not something we typically explore at Physics Tuition, it, nevertheless, is an interesting topic to address.
Can you get sucked out of an aircraft?
Typically, yes. However, factually, the probability of such an occurrence is significantly low. Nevertheless, it still helps to understand the true mechanics behind the possibility.
Mankind is designed to live on Earth and not up in the air; our internal organs contract and expand in accordance with atmospheric pressure at sea level. As we rise in altitude, whether hiking up a mountain or, in this case, flying in an aircraft, there is a reduction in the effective amount of atmosphere, leading to a lowered air pressure. This reduced air pressure is not favourable for our human body.
The atmospheric pressure at an aircraft cruising altitude of 36,000 feet is 3.3 psi, which is significantly lower than what the human body can handle, which is 11.3 psi. Hence, the reason why aircraft cabins are pressurised to simulate atmospheric pressure at sea level.
When we see movie scenes of damaged planes at cruising altitude, the structural damage results in a sudden drop in the cabin’s pressure. This caused the air in the cabin to be forced out until equilibrium was established. This process is known as depressurisation. As the air is being forced out, it can also pick up items and even unfortunate passengers, partially or even completely forcing them out of the aircraft.
Types of depressurisation
Depressurisation as a result of structural damage can be categorised into two types: Rapid depressurisation and explosive depressurisation.
Rapid depressurisation refers to the quick loss of cabin pressure in a couple of seconds. On the other hand, explosive depressurisation occurs almost instantly.
Depressurisation as a result of a faulty door seal and gasket, a malfunction in the pressurisation, or a cracked window can be categorised as an insidious depressurisation, also known as a gradual depressurisation, which refers to a slow leak.
What happens when you are sucked out of an aircraft?
Upon sudden depressurisation of an aircraft, the passengers will experience several symptoms, such as hypoxia and altitude-induced decompression sickness, which limits the oxygen intake to their bodies. Other symptoms include their lips turning blue, nausea, stomachaches, joint popping, and ear pain. In most cases, the passengers will eventually be incapacitated due to the lack of oxygen.
However, in the event that the passengers are sucked out of an aircraft, they are essentially going through a high-altitude free fall without any safety equipment. In such an extreme situation, the risk exponentiates rapidly, reducing their chances of survival significantly. The lung decompresses extremely, and hypoxia kicks in almost instantly.
How, then, do parachuters jump off aircraft?
For most parts, parachuters jump off aircraft at the lowest jumpable altitude of about 7,000 feet. At that level, the atmospheric pressure is safe enough for humans to withstand. However, there are certain military operations that require the personnel to jump from as high as 30,000 feet. In such cases, the aircraft is depressurised gradually and in a controlled manner. Most of these aircraft contain an outflow valve that allows the cabin pressure to equalise with the surrounding atmospheric pressure.
The risk of getting sucked out of aircraft is incredibly low. However, while it is not uncommon to experience depressurisation, it is almost never as violent or as dramatic as the movies. Nevertheless, the movies offer a lot of interesting physics side-thoughts to us, such as if ant-man is possible in real life.
The world of physics certainly is an interesting place. And if you are interested in furthering that interest, you can find out more at Physics Tuition. Contact us to find out more!