Why An Airplane Door Won’t Open

By RICH THOMASELLI, TravelPulse.com, April 17, 2014

3D Airplane Door
Photo courtesy of www.thinkstock.comnkstock.com

No doubt, it was a frightening moment.

A California man tried to open a rear door mid-flight on Sunday on a Southwest Airlines plane from Chicago to Sacramento before being subdued by passengers and flight attendants. The flight was diverted to Omaha, Nebraska, where the man faces federal charges.

Scary, yes.

Realistic, no.

The laws of physics say that as long as the aircraft is still pressurized, the doors will not open, especially at 35,000 feet. Try as he might, that passenger was not getting the main exit doors or the emergency exit doors opened mid-flight.

Two things were working against him (or anybody else for that matter). The internal cabin of the aircraft is at a higher pressure than outside, a pressure that actually forcing the door outward. But in order to actually open the door of the aircraft, take a peek next time to see how it’s done on the ground. One has to first pull the door inward, and then outward.

Commercial airline pilot and airline safety expert Doug Moss told National Geographic last year that the difference in air pressure makes it “beyond the capability of a human to (open the door mid-flight). They’re not strong enough. It’s probably 6 p.s.i. (pounds per square inch) of differential pressure against hundreds of square inches of door. So that means it would be something like a thousand pounds you’d have to pull in.”

Writing in USA Today, captain Meryl Gattine agreed.

“I’d like to reassure the traveling public that a passenger cannot open the door of a commercial airliner in flight,” she said. “Why? For two reasons: First, cabin doors are generally “plug-type” doors. When closed, they are larger than the openings. You can push on a cabin door all you want, but it’s not going to go through the smaller opening. So how does one ever get this door through the opening if it’s too small? There is more than one door model, but generally there’s a handle that is rotated. The operator must pull the door slightly inward, reposition and rotate it before it can pass through the smaller opening.”