It’s something we’ve all worried about — and it might even be something a few of us have felt the overwhelming urge to try in a moment of wild imagination.
Is it possible to open a plane door mid-flight?
According to airline pilot and former US air force aviator Ron Wagner, who addressed this question on a Quora forum recently, it was technically possible — but there was a huge caveat.
“Sure, no problem at all, if you’re strong enough to pull sideways with three to four tonnes of force,” he said.
The pilot said occasionally a flight attendant would rush into the cockpit to report a passenger trying to open the emergency row exit door, but “we just laughed and told her to ignore him. Because it is funny,” he said.
“At cruise altitude, the average exit hatch has about three to four tons [2.7 to 3.6 tonnes] of pressure holding it in place. Even on the ground, once the pressurisation is turned on, there’s maybe 400 to 800 pounds [181 to 362kg] of pressure. Yes, airliners pressurise a bit on the ground, which prevents pressure bumps that would pop your eardrums during takeoff.
“It’s less than 1 psi [pounds per square inch], but multiply that by hundreds of square inches and you’ll see that even if we went back to try to stop the guy, even on the ground, if he was strong enough to pull it out, we weren’t going to stop him.”
OK, BUT CAN DOORS OPEN THEMSELVES MID-FLIGHT?
Wagner then explained why main doors don’t blow open midair — they open outward.
“Airliner doors are ingeniously designed,” he said. “Few people realise it, but it’s some really excellent engineering.
“Upon closing, the door swings inside the cabin and then nestles outward into a frame where the door becomes a plug. They’re called plug doors. In aviation, you always want physics to work in your favour, so cabin doors use physics to remain in place rather than fighting physics with some massive locking mechanism.
“Without this design, eventually with daily use on tens of thousands of planes, over decades, one of these locking mechanisms would eventually break and a door would open in flight. I’ve never heard of a plug-type cabin door opening in flight.”
Wagner said designers have not always used that principle on all aircraft doors. The lower baggage bins on the ill-fated McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft used a locking mechanism, similar to a bank vault, that deteriorated with thousands of uses by baggage handlers and became notorious for failing.
A notable, tragic example of that was Turkish Airlines flight 981 that crashed into a forest in France in 1974, killing all 346 people on board.
“The rear cargo door blew out with such force that the entire aircraft frame buckled,” Wagner said, adding that McDonnell Douglas planes were never as strong as Boeing aircraft.
“The buckled floors left the control cables under the floor hanging slack. The pilots’ yokes in the cockpit were just loose and floppy. All they could do was let everyone pray while they watched the plane slowly go out of control and crash.
“This crash resulted in a complete redesign of the locking mechanism, and no more DC-10 nor MD-11 cargo doors have blown out. But those accidents, combined with others caused by sloppy design, eventually caused the DC-10s to cease passenger operations. They now only carry freight.”
So the short story is: you won’t be able to open the door, so don’t bother trying it — unless you want to get arrested.
But plenty of passengers have tried it.
A passenger tried to do it on an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Brisbane in November 2016.
The Sunshine Coast man, 25, allegedly couldn’t wait the final 10 minutes before the end of the 15-hour-flight and tried to yank the exit door open while the plane was still in the air, and was tackled to the ground by a another passenger before being arrested in Brisbane.
A woman tried to open the front cabin door of a Jetstar plane as the flight approached Avalon from Sydney in May 2016.
And in August that year, an Air Alaska flight between New York and Seattle was diverted to Minneapolis when a passenger tried to open the rear cabin door.
Sometimes it’s an accident, such as with a passenger on a China Southern Airlines flight who mistook the emergency exit for a toilet door and opened it, triggering the emergency slide. Notably, the plane was still on the runway during that incident.
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