A Southwest passenger was partially sucked out of a plane window after an engine explosion - here's how that could happen
- Southwest Airlines flight 1380 suffered an engine failure that smashed a plane window, sucking a passenger halfway out of the plane in mid-air.
- Passenger planes are pressurized to an equivalent of around 8,000 feet above sea level. At cruising altitude, around 36,000 feet, the air pressure is much lower.
- Air pressure has a tendency to equalize, so when a hole is ripped in the plane, it causes a strong sucking force that originates outside the aircraft.
The flight from New York to Dallas was forced to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia after the incident, and the passenger - 43-year-old Jennifer Riordan - passed away on Tuesday at a local hospital. It was the first fatality on a US passenger plane in 9 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 reported feeling "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 airplane during flight (whether it's caused by an explosion or not), the plane will undergo rapid depressurization.
Commercial airplane cabins are generally pressurized to an equivalent of 6000 to 8000 feet above sea level, according to the World Heath Organization, in an effort to maintain a healthy oxygen level for both the passengers and 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 cabin.
When a hole rips open, a sucking force, caused by the pressure difference between the cabin and the sky, will pull any objects - human or otherwise, out of the plane. This is because air pressure has a tendency to equalize, moving from areas of high pressure to low pressure.
Depending on the size of the hole, it 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.
Chances of survival aren't high if you get fully sucked out into the sky. The human body is unlikely to survive a fall from that height, and you'd probably lose consciousness quickly because of the low oxygen levels at cruising altitude.
The temperature outside at cruising altitude can also be as low as -70 degrees Fahrenheit, which could immediately freeze a passenger's skin and cause their heart rate and nervous system to go into shock, Peter Wagner, a physician at the University of California, 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 towards the back of the plane.
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