Can an Airplane’s Exit Door Be Opened Mid-Flight?

Aug 11, 2017

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Sure, no problem at all. If you are strong enough to pull it sideways with three to four tons of force.

Every once in a while, back in my airline days, a young flight attendant would breathlessly race into the cockpit to warn us that a guy in an emergency exit row was trying to open the door. She’d order him to stop, but he just kept trying. She needed one of us to come back and stop him. “Omg! Now! Hurry!”

We just laughed and told her to ignore him. Because it is funny.

At cruise altitude, the average exit hatch has about three or four tons of pressure holding it in place. Even on the ground, once the pressurization is turned on, there are maybe 400 to 800 pounds.

Yes, airliners pressurize a bit on the ground, which prevents pressure bumps that would pop your ears during takeoff. It’s less than one PSI, 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.

The escape hatches are different from the main doors and are removed from the inside; they are simple plugs and pressurization makes them essentially impossible to remove. But the main doors do indeed open outward. Why don’t they blow out?

Airliner doors are ingeniously designed. Few people realize it, but it’s some really excellent engineering. Next time you are boarding a Boeing, take a good look at the mechanism. Upon closing, the door swings inside the cabin and then nestles outward into a frame where the door becomes a plug (called “plug doors”). In aviation, you always want physics to work in your favor, so cabin doors use physics to hold them in place, rather than fighting physics with some massive locking mechanism.

Even if they tried, eventually, in daily use on tens of thousands of planes, over decades of use, one would eventually break and a door would open in flight. I’ve never heard of a plug-type cabin door opening in flight.

Tragic design: Unfortunately, designers have not used that principle on all aircraft doors. The doors on the lower baggage bins on a DC-10 are a tragic example. They used a locking mechanism, something akin to a bank vault. Very strong, but something that must not deteriorate with thousands of uses by baggage handlers. Sadly, a couple of them failed. They blow out with such force that the entire aircraft frame buckled. (MD never built planes as strong as Boeing.) The buckled floors left the control cables under the floor hanging slack. The pilot’s 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.

The crash of Turkish Airlines flight 981 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 pax operations. They now carry only freight.

Featured image courtesy of Artfoliophoto.

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