Hollywood movies seem to enjoy showing people opening cabin doors during flight. But, is this really possible? We are ‘open’ to exploring this topic.
Hollywood movies seem to enjoy showing people opening cabin doors during flight. The wind rushing in the aircraft is usually accompanied by a struggle. Still, can a door be opened in flight?
The mechanics of operating a door
The first thing to consider is that doors are ultimately mechanically locked. The large handles on the doors are locked shut via the cabin crew. The cabin crew closes the aircraft’s doors once all passengers are boarded, but there is one final step before the cabin is completely secured. Before gate pushback, the flight attendants will conduct a door check and announce “arm doors” or something similar.
Virgin Atlantic Training Captain Chris Pohl previously told Simple Flying the following about the factors involved:
“The eight cabin doors on the A350-1000 are controlled by the crew member assigned to them and “cross-checked” by the opposite crew member. The arming instructions come from the FSM (flight Service Manager) when we begin our pushback. The call to disarm the doors comes from the PM (Pilot Monitoring) as we turn onto our parking stand.”
So, while you’re on the ground, it could be possible to open the door.
However, in the air, it’s a different scenario.
Pressure, pressure, pressure
Once airborne, a pressurized aircraft’s doors can not be opened. This is true for pilots, flight attendants, and passengers. Why? For the simple reason that cabin pressure won’t allow it.
The cabin pressure is far too strong for anyone to open them. At a typical cruising altitude, up to eight pounds of pressure are pushing against every square inch of the interior fuselage. That’s over 1,100 pounds against each square foot of the door. Even at lower altitudes, the differential is still more than anyone can overcome.
Cabin doors have a tapered shape that seals them once pressure is applied, much like a plug. Some doors retract upward into the ceiling; others swing outward but open inward first.
But didn’t D.B. Cooper do it?
The infamous case of D.B. Cooper, who pulled off the incredible feat of a bailout from a Northwest Airlines Boeing 727 with a bag full of money, is the stuff of legends. There is still so much mystery behind his escape, but one thing is certain. The door he exited was not a cabin door. That would have been far too difficult to accomplish.
The mysterious thief opened the 727’s rear door and lowered its stairs in flight. This is something that civilian flight crews were not aware was possible at the time. Cooper’s sky-high bailout into the night sky and many stories and conspiracy theories also brought changes to the 727s rear door design, including a safety feature named the “Cooper Vane.”
Get all the latest aviation news right here on Simple Flying.
Passengers (and crew) have tried…and tried again.
Mysterious criminals aside, there have been plenty of cases where passengers have tried to open doors during a flight. They were never successful and only ended up in handcuffs. On the ground, there have been cases of passengers who have opened doors and even a frazzled flight attendant or two that have decided to end their flights prematurely within the safety of a parked aircraft.
Notably, earlier this year, an IndiGo passenger tried to remove the emergency exit cover on an Airbus A321neo in a mid-air scare between Nagpur and Mumbai. The month before, Indian Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya accidentally opened the emergency exit of an IndiGo ATR aircraft on the ground in Chennai.
General accidents related to doors have also occurred over the years. For instance, in January 2022, a British Airways Boeing 777’s second door was ripped off in Cape Town. The aircraft was reportedly pushed back with the jetbridge remaining attached to it.
High-flying attempts to open cockpit doors may continue. Nonetheless, any that open during flight will be relegated to Hollywood movies where the impossible can always become a reality.
What are your thoughts about the mechanics of aircraft doors? What do you make of all the overall factors involved? Let us know what you think in the comment section.