Passenger Tries To Open Exit Door: What Would Have Happened If Alexander Michael Herrera Opened Door During Flight?

By iScienceTimes Staff on May 28, 2013 7:59 PM EDT

airplane
Alexander Michael Herrera tried to open an emergency exit door yesterday on an Alaska Airlines flight. He was restrained by passengers and flight crew and arrested when the plane landed in Portland, Ore. (Photo: Flickr: wildhaber)

A passenger tried to open an airplane door in the air yesterday on an Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to Portland, Ore. Alexander Michael Herrera, 23, was arrested by FBI agents in Portland and charged with interfering with a flight crew.

Herrera was sitting near the emergency exit on Alaska Airlines Flight 132 when he set off an alarm by trying to pull the door handle of the exit. Witnesses said Herrera was screaming and hissing. The plane crew and other passengers used shoelaces and belt clips to fasten Herrera to his seat.

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One witness, Ryan Oelrich, told ABC News that he was sleeping in his seat when he heard a "loud hissing noise" and "lots of screaming."

"My first thought was that the plane must be going down, but then I heard someone screaming to stop him, take him down," Oelrich said. "I looked behind me and in the exit row was a very large gentleman who was attempting to open the exit row door."

According to a federal complaint filed in U.S. District Court today, Herrera told police he was bipolar but hadn't taken his medication for more than a year, and that he'd been hearing voices for the past four days. Herrera also claimed that he remembered getting on the plane, but didn't remember the flight itself.

What would have happened if Alexander Michael Herrera successfully opened the emergency exit door mid-flight?

Well, for starters, it's all impossible to open a plane door during a flight, for a few reasons.

For one thing, cabin pressure effectively seals the doors shut. Airplane doors have to be pulled inward into the plane, not pushed out, so the doors are essentially plugs -- and they're plugged in tight. According to Patrick Smith of Ask The Pilot, "at a typical cruising altitude, up to eight pounds of pressure are pushing against every square inch of interior fuselage. That's over 1,100 pounds against each square foot of door." That's more than any human, or humans, can push.

Furthermore, the doors are electronically locked on most planes, including on Boeing 737NGs, which is the type of Alaska Airlines flight Herrera was on.

If a door somehow was opened mid-flight -- or a window -- there would probably be some casualties. One of the most well-known cases occurred in 1989, when a cargo door became unlatched at 23,000 feet. The change in air pressure ripped open a portion of the cabin, sucking the seats and floor around nine people out of the plane -- and the people themselves.

When the cabin of a plane undergoes this sort of "explosive decompression," as it's called, the air temperature drops significantly; at 30,000 feet, the air temperature is about negative 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Passengers would also have difficulty breathing and experience decompression sickness. Passengers would also experience abdominal bloating.

So, good thing Alexander Michael Herrera didn't open that door. Not that it's possible anyway.

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