During a terrifying Southwest flight that suffered a midair engine explosion Tuesday, a passenger was “partially sucked out” of the airplane’s window after a piece of shrapnel reportedly broke through, leaving one person dead and seven others injured.
While movies often depict exaggerated scenes of passengers being sucked out of planes, in reality it doesn’t usually happen so dramatically. But as the recent Southwest incident proves, it is possible. In fact, this isn’t the first time something like this has occurred.
In 2016, a passenger was sucked out of a gaping hole after a possible bomb attack on a Daallo Airlines flight over Somalia, the New York Post reported. In 1988, an 18-foot section of an Aloha Airline’s cabin roof ripped off and a flight attendant was ejected from the plane, according to Slate.
These instances occur due to an “explosive decompression,” when the pressurized air inside an aircraft leaves the cabin at a fast rate, according to Decoded Science. But not every instance of explosive decompression will lead to people being sucked out of the plane.
While large-scale structural failures can cause dangerous rapid decompression, a small hole in the plane’s fuselage won’t necessarily have the same disastrous results, Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, told Business Insider.
Jonathan Franklin, a commercial pilot with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, said the air pressure difference inside and outside the plane at cruising altitude isn’t typically enough to go “full vacuum cleaner” whenever a hole punctures the cabin. “Initially there will be a rush of air, enough to blow loose papers and items of clothing around. About one second later, the pressure inside and outside equalizes, and you’re just left with air rushing past the hole in the fuselage,” Franklin wrote in a blog post for the airline.
“It will be noisy, it will be cold (thermodynamics, lower air pressures create lower temperatures), and your oxygen mask will drop, but it won’t be those images of bodies being sucked into oblivion as 007 grips onto the gold-frilled curtains for dear life,” he wrote.
Southwest Airlines is still working with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after Tuesday’s tragedy and said in a statement they are “in the process of gathering additional information" regarding the flight to figure out what caused the deadly event.