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Airplanes rank pretty high on the list of things Hollywood rarely tries to understand. For instance, the opening sequence of Charlie's Angels (2000) involves Drew Barrymore's character popping open a cabin door mid-flight as easily as if she were opening a soda can. But can an airplane door be opened in flight so easily?
While not technically impossible to open the cabin door of an airborne plane, no human force can achieve it without first triggering some sort of malfunction to depressurize the cabin. Since this would typically result in either death or incarceration, it's best not to try it at all.
Those who overestimate their own strength might not be fully convinced. To keep them out of handcuffs, let's take a deep dive into why you won't be getting those cabin doors open any time soon.
Can An Airplane Door Be Opened In Flight?
Here's an example of something Hollywood frequently does get right. If you've ever watched a movie about mountain climbing, you're probably familiar with that obligatory scene where one of the characters risks running out of oxygen. That's because lower air pressure at higher altitudes makes breathing almost impossible.
Cruising altitude for a commercial airliner brings you up to 36,000 feet, roughly 7,000 feet higher than the peak of Mount Everest. The cabin must be pressurized to keep passengers from falling immediately unconscious. You'll still feel as if you're roughly 8,000 feet above sea level, but at least you won't pass out.
The pressure it takes to make your airplane breathable makes the door pretty much impossible to open by human hands. Pressurizing the cabin exerts a high force on the aircraft door from the inside. The door functions as a plug. The inner edge of aircraft doors is wider than the outer edge, and it basically functions like a bathtub drain stopper, corking the hole to prevent anything from falling through.
While incredible feats of human strength occur daily, the weight lifted by even the beefiest strong men rarely exceeds about 1,000 pounds. By contrast, roughly 24,000 pounds of force act on a cabin door while in flight.
Does this mean you couldn't open an airplane door mid-flight at all? Not necessarily. You would have to get a bit more creative than shouldering the door with your puny human body.
What Could Open An Airplane Door Mid-Flight?
Theoretically, you could force a cabin door open by depressurizing the cabin first. This wouldn't unlock it, but it would remove the additional pressure and make the door as easy to open as when it's on the ground. However, depressurizing the plane itself would take a fair bit of effort.
In the opening scene of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, a character depressurizes an airplane by shooting out one of the windows. This causes the door to fly right off its hinges. While the latter part likely wouldn't occur because airplane doors typically open inward, shooting out the windows could create what's known as "explosive decompression."
Airplane windows aren't generally bulletproof, so forcing a decompression event through such means would conceivably be possible. Granted, you'd first have to get a gun onto the plane, and you won't find advice on how to pull that off here. Some aircraft also have inflatable seals around the door. Forcing a leak in the seal could depressurize the cabin.
However, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. And in case the term "explosive decompression" didn't spell it out for you, depressurizing an airplane while on board would not be without its consequences.
Consequences Of Opening An Airplane Door
Even depressurizing a plane's cabin wouldn't necessarily open the door since the order to unlock it has to come from staff. But if a madman's running around threatening to shoot out windows, they might convince the flight crew to give such an order. Unfortunately, said madman would essentially be signing his death certificate.
When explosive decompression occurs naturally, it often tears apart the fuselage. At the very least, a massive pressure shift mid-flight would send small objects (and perhaps even human bodies) careening off on a skyward journey that few could survive.
If you did survive, you could face up to 20 years in federal prison. The only exception would be if you depressurized the cabin by shooting out a window. Causing a disturbance on a flight becomes an even more severe felony when a weapon is involved, so you may, in fact, never see the light of day again.
Maybe you brought a parachute along and plan to make a D.B. Cooper-style escape. That is a nice plan, except that most skydivers jump from heights of less than 6,000 feet. With cruising altitude measuring six times that height, surviving the jump becomes next to impossible.
With a bit of scientific know-how and a lot of dedication, you might find a way to force open the door to an airplane cabin in flight. However, the physical and legal consequences of doing so aren't worth the effort. It's best just to sit quietly and enjoy your Biscoff cookies until the airline crew lets you depart safely on the ground.
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