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Could you survive being sucked from an airplane?

Minnesota-based science writer Emily Sohn wrote a gruesomely fascinating article last week for Discovery News about what happens if you get sucked out of an airplane at 30,000 feet.

It’s a question that many people undoubtedly brooded about after hearing of the 5-foot hole that blew through the fuselage of Southwest Airlines flight 812 on April 1.

No one on that flight, fortunately, was ejected from the plane or even seriously injured (although a passenger and a crew member briefly lost consciousness). But there have been rare — very rare — cases in which a sudden rip in a plane’s fuselage causes air and nearby unattached objects (including a human body) to be blown right out of the plane.

Sohn mentions the tragic 1988 incident of Aloha Airlines flight 243, which lost a large section of its roof at 24,000 feet, causing a flight attendant to be pulled from the plane. I recall another incident in the 1970s of a man who was ejected from a plane near Albuquerque, N.M., when the window that he was sitting next to blew out. (In 2007, a man managed to survive a window blowout at 20,000 feet on a twin-engine piper turbo prop, but only with some luck and an extraordinary physical effort.)

The good news (if you can call it that) is that you probably wouldn’t survive the physical injuries caused by being pulled through the hole. But if you did, said one of the experts Sohn talked with, “[l]oss of consciousness and death would soon follow purely from oxygen deprivation to the brain.”

And that’s not all, writes Sohn:

At the same time, temperatures of -70 degrees Fahrenheit (-57 degrees Celsius) — made even colder by the chill of 500 mile-per-hour (805 kilometer-per-hour) winds — would lead to rapid freezing, beginning with the skin, eyes and other surface tissues.
In response to such extreme stress, your nervous system would go haywire, leading to potentially fatal spikes in blood pressure and heart rate. And the sudden change in air pressure would lead to a nasty case of the bends, as if you were scuba diving and came up too fast.

As I said, gruesome. Yet another good reason to keep your seatbelt on at all times (and, maybe, to ask for an aisle seat?).

You can read Sohn’s article here.

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