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This is what happens if you open a plane door mid-flight

Tomasz Frymorgen
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If you’re a nervous flyer then look away now.

Because things evidently got more than a little turbulent on an intercontinental Delta Air Lines journey after a passenger tried to open the emergency exit, mid-flight.

Around 45 minutes into Flight 129 from Seattle to Beijing, first-class passenger Joseph Daniel Hudek IV, 23, allegedly lunged at a front exit door, grabbed the handle and began trying to open it.

The FBI account of the incident states that a brawl then broke out on the Boeing 767 aircraft as two flight attendants “grabbed Hudek in an effort to subdue him and prevent his attempts to open the door".

The report says that Hudek was able to throw the flight attendants off and return to the door, managing to turn the lever halfway to its disarmed position.

The Delta aeroplane cabin in disarrayUS Attorney's Office

One of the flight attendants told the FBI agent that "the lever being at the 90 degree position would alert the pilot that the door was disarmed," and that "at a lower altitude, and with the door being disarmed as it was, it was possible that the door would open."

But how true is this? Could the agitated passenger have actually managed to get the door open?

Well, quite possibly yes.

Dr David Birch, Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering at Surrey University says that the doors on airliners are typically designed to be sealed into place by the higher pressure inside an aircraft.

However, “The cabin pressure is normally lower than normal sea-level conditions, so the pressure-lock only really starts to work at higher altitudes.”

If Hudek had managed to open the door, says Dr Birch, this would have activated the inflatable slides, which would have deployed but probably been torn off by the force of the oncoming air, travelling at hundreds of miles per hour.

Nevertheless, things wouldn’t have been quite so dramatic as in Iron Man 3, where all the passengers get sucked out of a hole blown in an aircraft.

If the door were opened, there may be a small drop in cabin pressure, but because of the plane’s low altitude, this probably would not even be enough to trigger the deployment of oxygen masks. It would get very windy, noisy, and would slowly get quite cold (though no colder than about 0°C).

“The pilot would see a door open alarm and cabin pressure alarm - and probably hear that something has gone very wrong.

"The pilot would declare an emergency, and would immediately begin an emergency descent (to reduce the cabin pressure difference).”

US laws also require aircraft makers to take precautions against exactly the kind of event that took place on Flight 129.

Federal Aviation Administration regulations state that, "Design precautions must be taken to minimize the possibility for a person to open a door intentionally during flight."

Dr Birch states, “It is also an airworthiness requirement that the aircraft must be able to fly and land safely with an open door, and that if opened in flight, the door must not become a hazard to the passengers or the aircraft.”

Some small relief for those of us already terrified of air travel.

So how did things end up back on flight 129, according to the FBI account? After being shrugged off by Hudek, the attendants notified the pilot, and called for help from fellow passengers before returning to battle with the enraged flyer.

At this point, Hudek allegedly began punching the flight attendants and “hit at least one assisting passenger [...] in the head with a red dessert wine bottle”.

As the melee unfolded, one of the flight attendants grabbed two bottles of wine and struck Hudek over the head, smashing at least one of them.

However, even this apparently failed to stop him.

The FBI report states that, “According to [one of the flight attendants] Hudek did not seemed impacted by the breaking of a full liter red wine bottle over his head, and instead shouted, ‘Do you know who I am?’ or something to that extent.”

Two bottles of red dessert wineiStock

Hudek was then placed in a chokehold, but managed to escape from it before finally being overwhelmed and zip-tied as other passengers joined the fray.

One of the flight attendants actually had to instruct another passenger on how to re-arm the partially opened door, as she continued to restrain Hudek.

The aircraft, carrying 210 passengers and 11 crew, performed an unscheduled landing back at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport around two hours after initial take-off.

Police officers boarded the plane and took Hudek into custody. However, Hudek remained “combative and noncompliant,” even managing to flip over the wheelchair that he was strapped into as he was escorted through the airport.

Delta Air Lines have released this statement:

“Flight 129 returned to Seattle following a security incident with a passenger. The passenger was restrained onboard and was removed from the flight by law enforcement without further incident when the aircraft arrived back in Seattle.”

Hudek has been charged with one count of interference with flight crew members and is due to appear at a detention hearing on Thursday.

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