Cat Scan

News… and then some.

So there’s a hole in the airplane: what you should do about it

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You can't exactly stick a magazine over this.

By Cat Viglienzoni — April 8, 2011

After the recent Southwest Airlines fuselage blow-out, I thought I’d brush up on my how-to-survive-extreme-situations knowledge.

In the case of a hole in your airplane, the forces against you are formidable.

First, the sucking force that will pull you out is caused by the difference in the internal cabin pressure and the external atmospheric pressure. At 30-thousand feet, the pressure outside is 2.5 times less than what’s inside the cabin. This means the hole creates a wind tunnel that increases in strength as you approach the hole. By the time the air leaves the plane, it’s traveling at the speed of sound. So if it’s a one-foot hole, that means about a half a ton of force heading toward the hole for the people sitting right next to it.

And that hole will get bigger. This is because wind speeds will enlarge holes in the plane. This is why getting down to the ground (in a reasonable fashion) is crucial.

Now, this is extremely rare. But if you are sucked out of the plane at 30-thousand feet… here’s what’ll happen.

The good news: you don’t have to worry about not having a parachute. You don’t even have to panic (because there’s no point).

The bad news… the reasons you don’t need to worry about the parachute:

  • Instant exposure to extremely low oxygen levels. You’ll die simply from not having enough oxygen to go to your brain.
  • Cold temperatures. Like, -70 F cold. And combine that with the wind chill from 500mph winds and you’ll have rapid freezing beginning with tissue on your eyes, skin, and surface tissue.
  • Hitting the plane on the way out. Forget hitting the ground – if you hit something on the way out of the plane you will probably lose whatever body part it is or be sliced in half.
  • Nervous system collapse. Extreme stress causes the nervous system to go haywire, leading to heart attacks and fatal spikes in blood pressure.
  • The bends. Caused by rapid changes in air pressure. Not fun. (Okay, not as bad as getting ripped in half, but seriously…)

So what to do if a hole suddenly appears in your airplane?

Well, all isn’t necessarily doomed. If it’s a big hole, all you can do is hope your pilot is experienced enough to bring the plane down quickly. This was the case on the Southwest flight. Unfortunately, in the Southwest case, there’s really nothing you yourself can do except fasten your seatbelt (so you don’t get sucked out), put on your oxygen mask (so you can breathe), and pray (if that’s your thing).

But if it’s a small hole – say, from a bullet – this article recommends putting a magazine or a book over it. The air pressure will hold it in place.

All in all, though, not a good situation.

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Written by Cat Viglienzoni

April 8, 2011 at 3:43 PM

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