Ask the pilot

What if my seatmate tries to open the cabin door at 37,000 feet?

Published May 5, 2006 11:07AM (EDT)

Last Friday we focused on the plight of Harraj Mann, the Clash fan whose run-in with a hypervigilant cab driver was covered by the Sun, a U.K. newspaper. For the record, the British tabloids aren't normally on my reading list -- unless it's to sarcastically scrutinize a paper's shameful aviation reportage. The Sun, in particular, is notorious for overcooked air travel stories.

Then again, who needs Europe when there's the American media to kick around, with its own never ending supply of off-kilter articles? Behold the latest frightening incident in the skies above the American heartland, as brought to us by our old friends the Associated Press.

In summary: Two weeks ago, a disturbed man aboard a United Airlines flight out of Chicago had to be subdued after claiming to have a bomb and attempting to open a cabin door during flight. Passengers, along with three Secret Service agents en route to join President Bush's entourage in California, wrestled Jose Manuel Pelayo-Ortega to the floor of the Sacramento-bound Airbus A320. The jet was diverted to Denver, where Pelayo-Ortega was taken into custody.

A few things are wrong with the AP's rendering. First off, there's no such thing as an Airbus "A-320." Lose the hyphen; it's an A320. This may strike the average reader as an eminently excusable infraction, but it's one newspapers and wire services make repeatedly.

But getting to the meat of the issue: Despite the reporter's every attempt -- intentional or not -- to suggest otherwise, there was virtually no way for Pelayo-Ortega to open a cabin door while aloft. The facts and fallacies of airplane doors are a topic addressed in my book, and I touched on it in a column many months ago. (Judging from the mail I receive, this is a surprisingly common concern among airline passengers.) Now that the press has gotten hold of an incident and made mush out of the facts, it's worth revisiting.

Essentially there are two types of cabin doors: the larger kind, like the ones that passengers use to board and deplane, and the simpler, hatch-type emergency exits, normally found over the wing. All commercial airliners have the former. Others -- generally smaller types like the 737, A320 and various regional jets -- have both.

During flight none of these doors can be opened, 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. With very few exceptions, aircraft doors open inward. Some retract upward into the ceiling; others swing outward or downward against the fuselage; but they all open inward first, and not even the most musclebound human will overcome the hundreds of pounds of pressure holding them shut. At a typical cruising altitude, as many as 8 pounds of pressure are pushing against every square inch of interior fuselage. That's 1,152 pounds of weight against each square foot of door. Flying at low altitudes, where cabin-pressure levels are lower, even a differential of 2 pounds per square inch is still more than anyone can displace -- even after six cups of coffee and the frustration that comes with sitting behind a shrieking infant for five hours.

For good measure, cabin doors are held secure by a series of electrical or mechanical latches, or both. So, while I wouldn't recommend it unless you enjoy being pummeled and placed in a chokehold by panicked passengers who don't know better, a person could conceivably sit there all day tugging on a door handle to his or her heart's content. The door is not going to open -- though you might get a red light flashing in the cockpit, causing the captain to spill his Diet Coke.

(If you're wondering about the infamous D.B. Cooper, he ordered the crew to depressurize the cabin, then parachuted out the rear tail-cone exit, which on the old Boeing 727 did not include an in-flight lock.)

On the ground -- and as one would hope with the possibility of an evacuation -- the situation changes. In most cases, opening a door on the ground -- while taxiing, for example -- will also activate a door's emergency escape slide. As an aircraft approaches the gate, you will sometimes hear the cabin crew calling out "doors to manual" or "disarm doors." This varies somewhat, depending on the type of plane, but it has to do with overriding the automatic deployment function of the escape slides. Parked at the terminal, you don't want the slides billowing into the Jetway corridor or onto a catering truck.

But, you ask, What if in the very first (or last) moments of flight, screaming down the runway at 150 knots, when pressurization is minimal or at zero, a man leaps up and grabs for the door? Will it open?

It might, yes. But unless he then hurls himself through the opening and directly into the path of a rear stabilizer, damaging it severely, nothing catastrophic is going to happen. Even if he's ingested by an engine, the plane will still fly.

Now, let's assume the worst. Say Mr. Pelayo-Ortega has a hydraulic jack hidden in his luggage and is able to pop the exit of that United A320, fully pressurized at 37,000 feet. At the very least, depending on exactly how fast the door opens, it's going to be excessively noisy and confusing, with oxygen masks dropping from the ceiling and people's belongings flying around. The aircraft might be damaged if debris strikes the wings, engines or tail. But there's a decent chance that the only person ejected from the jet will be Pelayo-Ortega himself, and possibly any occupants who aren't wearing their seat belts. (When the fuselage of an Aloha Airlines 737 ruptured during flight in 1988, only one occupant -- a flight attendant -- was pulled overboard.)

Passenger Donna Bell's observation, "Had he opened the door, we'd all be dead," is totally without merit, as was the AP's contention, in the very first sentence, that passengers "had to take matters into their own hands to prevent Jose Manuel Pelayo-Ortega from bringing their plane down." The plane wasn't going anywhere -- except to Sacramento. Instead of seeking out expertise from somebody who actually knows something about airplanes, the reporter used a scary-sounding account from a frightened passenger who couldn't have been expected to understand what would or wouldn't happen.

As perhaps you've gathered, airplane doors can be a lot more complex than people might assume -- affixed with sensors, complicated latching systems and dozens of moving parts. On one 19-passenger turboprop I used to captain, the main cabin door had an inflatable seal around its inner sill. During flight, the seal would inflate, helping to lock in cabin pressure while blocking out the racket from the plane's two extremely loud engines. Every now and then, the seal would suffer a leak or puncture and begin to deflate, sometimes quite rapidly. The resultant loss of pressurization was easily addressed and ultimately harmless, but the sudden noise -- a great, 100-decibel sucking sound backed by the now unbuffered throb of two 1,100-horsepower engines only inches away -- would scare the living daylights out of everybody on the plane, including me.

As for the United Airlines incident, you may take further comfort in knowing that a pair of F-16s were scrambled from Colorado's Buckley Air Force Base to intercept the A320, just in case.

There is, or there used to be, a big difference between so-called air rage and attempted acts of air piracy or terrorism. Thanks to our perpetual Sept. 11 hangover, that distinction is now usually made afterward. Last December, federal air marshals shot and killed an unarmed man at Miami International Airport. These days, even a minor in-flight disruption is liable to result in a pair of supersonic fighters hanging outside your window. Speaking in the above AP story, a NORAD spokesman cites an astonishing 2,300 military intercepts of civilian airliners since the 2001 attacks. That's more than one every day. The government won't verify an exact number, but even a fraction of that total would be unnerving.

During an intercept, military pilots follow a careful, step-by-step protocol to avoid accidental shoot-downs, but still there's the risk of a tragic mistake -- to say nothing of the vast amounts of fuel and labor these missions entail. All for the sake of posturing, if you ask me. With the threat of a copycat Sept. 11-style takeover all but off the table, what these sorties are intended to accomplish seems ambiguous at best. Put it this way: The likelihood of errantly shooting down an airliner is probably the same as or greater than the chance of successfully intercepting a commandeered aircraft headed for a skyscraper or U.S. landmark.

Some notorious military shoot-downs of civilian aircraft:

2001: As a U.S. surveillance plane watches, a Peruvian fighter shoots down a planeload of suspected drug smugglers. The aircraft is actually ferrying missionaries.

1988: Distracted by an ongoing gun battle, the crew of the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes mistakes an Iran Air flight for a hostile military aircraft and destroys it with two surface-to-air missiles. All 290 occupants of the Airbus A300 are killed.

1983: Korean Air Lines flight 007, a Boeing 747 carrying 269 passengers and crew from New York to Seoul, is downed by a Soviet fighter after drifting off course near Sakhalin Island in the North Pacific.

1980: In a tragedy shrouded in controversy and coverup, an Itavia Airlines (Italy) DC-9 carrying 81 people crashes into the Mediterranean after being hit by fire from a Libyan MiG-23, according to one theory. It is later alleged that American fighter jets engaged in a NATO exercise provoked the Libyan pilots into firing their rockets, which struck the nearby jetliner.

1973: An off-course Libyan Arab Airlines flight bound for Cairo is fired on by two Israeli F-4 Phantoms over the Sinai. All but five of 113 occupants are killed when the damaged 727 attempts a belly landing in the desert.


Re: Security and surveillance

Just a slight quibble with your line, "The average London commuter is covertly videotaped anywhere from 10 to 300 times daily." It's not covertly; it's overtly. British society works on the principle that policing is by consent of the public (that's why so few British cops carry guns), and the British public is in the large part quite happy about the cameras, which are placed right where you can see them. If a policeman monitoring a video screen can call his colleagues to a crime scene faster than with a phone call, all well and good. The cameras everyone hates, on the other hand, are the ones that get you a speeding ticket.

-- George Brims (62 in a 50 zone)

One question that I often ponder when traveling: Why do first-class and business-class passengers sometimes have the option of shorter security lines than coach passengers? Isn't the potential threat they pose the same as it is for every other passenger (and perhaps greater -- a trip to martyrdom is always better in first than economy)? I always thought that first-class passengers were entitled to better service, better food and priority boarding, but those are airline perks. Does TSA work for the airlines, or for the public?

-- Andrea Pertosa

Author's note: Not all airports have designated security lines for premium-class passengers. Unless I'm not paying enough attention, they seem to be the exception. (For what it's worth, Mohammed Atta and his four henchmen all were seated in first or business class on American Airlines flight 11, as were most of the Sept. 11 cabal on the other three flights.)

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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