There are no shortage of incidents involving a rowdy passenger who tries to burst open the plane door – and no shortage of cabin crew who have their own stories about trying to subdue passengers.
But what would happen if a passenger made it to the emergency door before a flight attendant ever noticed? Would the door burst open, suck up all passengers in the immediate vicinity, freeze up the cabin and cause the plane to explode?
That nightmare almost became reality, when a passenger in first class attempted to open the cabin door on board a Delta Air Lines service between Chicago and Beijing. The crew managed to restrain him - but not after a struggle - and he was arrested once the plane touched down.
While the news never fails to report these events, it seldom mentions the most important fact: you cannot open the doors or emergency hatches of an airplane in flight.
You can’t open them for the simple reason that cabin pressure won’t allow it. Think of an aircraft door as a drain plug, fixed in place by the interior pressure. Almost all aircraft exits open inward. Some retract upward into the ceiling. Others swing outward. But they open inward first, and not even the most musclebound human will overcome the force holding them shut.
But, just for curiosity’s sake, let’s say that someone is able to get a hydraulic jack through airport security, onto the plane and then have enough uninterrupted time to jack away the emergency exit door.
An open door would create a catastrophic “explosive decompression”. Explosive decompression, while rare, has occurred. One such instance happened in 1988 when a section of the airplane’s roof burst open. A flight attendant was sucked up through the hole in the plane, but the pilot managed to land within 13 minutes, avoiding additional fatalities.