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Uncontrolled decompression

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An uncontrolled decompression is an undesired drop in the pressure of a sealed system, such as a pressurised aircraft cabin or hyperbaric chamber, that typically results from human error, structural failure, or impact, causing the pressurised vessel to vent into its surroundings or fail to pressurize at all.

Such decompression may be classed as explosive, rapid, or slow:

  • Explosive decompression (ED) is violent and too fast for air to escape safely from the lungs and other air-filled cavities in the body such as the sinuses and eustachian tubes, typically resulting in severe to fatal barotrauma.
  • Rapid decompression may be slow enough to allow cavities to vent but may still cause serious barotrauma or discomfort.
  • Slow or gradual decompression occurs so slowly that it may not be sensed before hypoxia sets in.


In this test chamber, air pressure drops suddenly to that of the atmosphere at 60,000 ft (18,000 m). Air humidity immediately condenses into fog, which within seconds evaporates back into gas.

The term uncontrolled decompression here refers to the unplanned depressurisation of vessels that are occupied by people; for example, a pressurised aircraft cabin at high altitude, a spacecraft, or a hyperbaric chamber. For the catastrophic failure of other pressure vessels used to contain gas, liquids, or reactants under pressure, the term explosion is more commonly used, or other specialised terms such as BLEVE may apply to particular situations.

Decompression can occur due to structural failure of the pressure vessel, or failure of the compression system itself.[1][2] The speed and violence of the decompression is affected by the size of the pressure vessel, the differential pressure between the inside and outside of the vessel, and the size of the leak hole.

The US Federal Aviation Administration recognizes three distinct types of decompression events in aircraft: explosive, rapid, and gradual decompression.[1][2]

Explosive decompression[edit]

Explosive decompression occurs typically in less than 0.1 to 0.5 seconds, a change in cabin pressure faster than the lungs can decompress.[1][3] Normally, the time required to release air from the lungs without restrictions, such as masks, is 0.2 seconds.[4] The risk of lung trauma is very high, as is the danger from any unsecured objects that can become projectiles because of the explosive force, which may be likened to a bomb detonation.

Immediately after an explosive decompression, a heavy fog may fill the aircraft cabin as the air cools, raising the relative humidity and causing sudden condensation.[4] Military pilots with oxygen masks must pressure-breathe, whereby the lungs fill with air when relaxed, and effort has to be exerted to expel the air again.[5]

Rapid decompression[edit]

Rapid decompression typically takes more than 0.1 to 0.5 seconds, allowing the lungs to decompress more quickly than the cabin.[1][6] The risk of lung damage is still present, but significantly reduced compared with explosive decompression.

Gradual decompression[edit]

Slow, or gradual, decompression occurs slowly enough to go unnoticed and might only be detected by instruments.[7] This type of decompression may also come about from a failure to cabin pressurization as an aircraft climbs to altitude. An example of this is the 2005 Helios Airways Flight 522 crash, in which the maintenance service left the pressurization system in manual mode and the pilots did not check the pressurization system. As a result, they suffered a loss of consciousness (as well as most of the passengers and crew) due to hypoxia (lack of oxygen). The plane continued to fly due to the autopilot system and eventually crashed due to fuel exhaustion after leaving its flight path.

Decompression injuries[edit]

NASA astronaut candidates being monitored for signs of hypoxia during training in an altitude chamber

The following physical injuries may be associated with decompression incidents:

At least two confirmed cases have been documented of a person being blown through an airplane passenger window. The first occurred in 1973 when debris from an engine failure struck a window roughly midway in the fuselage. Despite efforts to pull the passenger back into the airplane, the occupant was forced entirely through the cabin window.[15] The passenger's skeletal remains were eventually found by a construction crew, and were positively identified two years later.[16] The second incident occurred on April 17, 2018, when a woman on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 was partially blown through an airplane passenger window that had broken from a similar engine failure. Although the other passengers were able to pull her back inside, she later died from her injuries.[17][18][19] In both incidents, the plane landed safely with the sole fatality being the person seated next to the window involved.

According to NASA scientist Geoffrey A. Landis, the effect depends on the size of the hole, which can be expanded by debris that is blown through it; "it would take about 100 seconds for pressure to equalise through a roughly 30.0 cm (11.8 in) hole in the fuselage of a Boeing 747." Anyone blocking the hole would have half a ton of force pushing them towards it, but this force reduces rapidly with distance from the hole.[20]

Implications for aircraft design[edit]

Modern aircraft are specifically designed with longitudinal and circumferential reinforcing ribs in order to prevent localised damage from tearing the whole fuselage open during a decompression incident.[21] However, decompression events have nevertheless proved fatal for aircraft in other ways. In 1974, explosive decompression onboard Turkish Airlines Flight 981 caused the floor to collapse, severing vital flight control cables in the process. The FAA issued an Airworthiness Directive the following year requiring manufacturers of wide-body aircraft to strengthen floors so that they could withstand the effects of in-flight decompression caused by an opening of up to 20 square feet (1.9 m2) in the lower deck cargo compartment.[22] Manufacturers were able to comply with the Directive either by strengthening the floors and/or installing relief vents called "dado panels" between the passenger cabin and the cargo compartment.[23]

Cabin doors are designed to make it nearly impossible to lose pressurization through opening a cabin door in flight, either accidentally or intentionally. The plug door design ensures that when the pressure inside the cabin exceeds the pressure outside, the doors are forced shut and will not open until the pressure is equalized. Cabin doors, including the emergency exits, but not all cargo doors, open inwards, or must first be pulled inwards and then rotated before they can be pushed out through the door frame because at least one dimension of the door is larger than the door frame. Pressurization prevented the doors of Saudia Flight 163 from being opened on the ground after the aircraft made a successful emergency landing, resulting in the deaths of all 287 passengers and 14 crew members from fire and smoke.

Prior to 1996, approximately 6,000 large commercial transport airplanes were type certified to fly up to 45,000 feet (14,000 m), without being required to meet special conditions related to flight at high altitude.[24] In 1996, the FAA adopted Amendment 25–87, which imposed additional high-altitude cabin-pressure specifications, for new designs of aircraft types.[25] For aircraft certified to operate above 25,000 feet (FL 250; 7,600 m), it "must be designed so that occupants will not be exposed to cabin pressure altitudes in excess of 15,000 feet (4,600 m) after any probable failure condition in the pressurization system."[26] In the event of a decompression which results from "any failure condition not shown to be extremely improbable," the aircraft must be designed so that occupants will not be exposed to a cabin altitude exceeding 25,000 feet (7,600 m) for more than 2 minutes, nor exceeding an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,000 m) at any time.[26] In practice, that new FAR amendment imposes an operational ceiling of 40,000 feet on the majority of newly designed commercial aircraft.[27][28][Note 1]

In 2004, Airbus successfully petitioned the FAA to allow cabin pressure of the A380 to reach 43,000 feet (13,000 m) in the event of a decompression incident and to exceed 40,000 feet (12,000 m) for one minute. This special exemption allows the A380 to operate at a higher altitude than other newly designed civilian aircraft, which have not yet been granted a similar exemption.[27]

International standards[edit]

The Depressurization Exposure Integral (DEI) is a quantitative model that is used by the FAA to enforce compliance with decompression-related design directives. The model relies on the fact that the pressure that the subject is exposed to and the duration of that exposure are the two most important variables at play in a decompression event.[29]

Other national and international standards for explosive decompression testing include:

Notable decompression accidents and incidents[edit]

Decompression incidents are not uncommon on military and civilian aircraft, with approximately 40–50 rapid decompression events occurring worldwide annually.[30] However, in most cases the problem is manageable, injuries or structural damage rare and the incident not considered notable.[8] One notable, recent case was Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 in 2018, where an uncontained engine failure ruptured a window, causing a passenger to be partially blown out.[31]

Decompression incidents do not occur solely in aircraft; the Byford Dolphin accident is an example of violent explosive decompression of a saturation diving system on an oil rig. A decompression event is often the result of a failure caused by another problem (such as an explosion or mid-air collision), but the decompression event may worsen the initial issue.

Event Date Pressure vessel Event type Fatalities/number on board Decompression type Cause
Pan Am Flight 201 1952 Boeing 377 Stratocruiser Accident 1/27 Explosive decompression Passenger door blew out after lock failure[32]
BOAC Flight 781 1954 de Havilland Comet 1 Accident 35/35 Explosive decompression Metal fatigue
South African Airways Flight 201 1954 de Havilland Comet 1 Accident 21/21 Explosive decompression[33] Metal fatigue
TWA Flight 2 1956 Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation Accident 70/70 Explosive decompression Mid-air collision
American Airlines Flight 87 1957 Douglas DC-7 Accident 0/46 Explosive decompression Propeller blade separated and hit fuselage[34]
Air France F-BGNE 1957 Lockheed Super Constellation Accident 1/? Explosive decompression Window shattered at 18,000 feet (5,500 m)[35]
Continental Airlines Flight 11 1962 Boeing 707-100 Bombing 45/45 Explosive decompression Insurance fraud suicide bomb
Aerolineas Argentinas Flight 737 1962 Avro 748-105 Srs. 1 Accident 1/34 Explosive decompression Aft left passenger door separated from airplane[36]
Volsk parachute jump accident 1962 Pressure suit Accident 1/1 Rapid decompression Collision with gondola upon jumping from balloon
Cambrian Airways G-AMON 1964 Vickers 701 Viscount Accident 0/63 Explosive decompression Propeller blade separated and hit fuselage[37]
Strato Jump III 1966 Pressure suit Accident 1/1 Rapid decompression Pressure suit failure[38]
Apollo program spacesuit testing accident 1966 Apollo A7L spacesuit (or possibly a prototype of it) Accident 0/1 Rapid decompression Oxygen line coupling failure[39]
Northeast Airlines N8224H 1967 Douglas DC-6B Accident 0/14 Explosive decompression Fuselage cracked open from fatigue[40]
USAF 59-0530 1970 Douglas C-133B Cargomaster Accident 5/5 Explosive decompression Existing crack expanded, leading to fuselage failure[41]
Hughes Airwest Flight 706 1971 McDonnell Douglas DC-9-31 Accident 49/49 Explosive decompression Mid-air Collision
Soyuz 11 re-entry 1971 Soyuz spacecraft Accident 3/3 Rapid decompression Pressure equalisation valve damaged by faulty pyrotechnic separation charges[42]
BEA Flight 706 1971 Vickers Vanguard Accident 63/63 Explosive decompression Structural failure of rear pressure bulkhead due to corrosion
JAT Flight 367 1972 McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 Terrorist bombing 27/28 Explosive decompression Bomb explosion in cargo hold
American Airlines Flight 96 1972 Douglas DC-10-10 Accident 0/67 Rapid decompression[43] Cargo door failure
Aeroflot Flight 109 1973 Tuploev Tu-104B Bombing 81/81 Explosive decompression Hijacker detonated explosive[44]
National Airlines Flight 27 1973 Douglas DC-10-10 Accident 1/128 Explosive decompression[45] Uncontained engine failure
Turkish Airlines Flight 981 1974 Douglas DC-10-10 Accident 346/346 Explosive decompression[46] Cargo door failure
USAF (registration unknown) 1974 Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker Accident 1/33 Explosive decompression Small window broke at 35,000 feet[47]
TWA Flight 841 1974 Boeing 707-331B Terrorist bombing 88/88 Explosive decompression Bomb explosion in cargo hold
1975 Tân Sơn Nhứt C-5 accident 1975 Lockheed C-5 Galaxy Accident 138/314 Explosive decompression Improper maintenance of rear doors, cargo door failure
British Airways Flight 476 1976 Hawker Siddeley Trident 3B Accident 63/63 Explosive decompression Mid-air collision
Korean Air Lines Flight 902 1978 Boeing 707-320B Shootdown 2/109 Explosive decompression Shootdown after straying into prohibited airspace over the Soviet Union
Air Canada Flight 680 1979 McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 Accident 0/45 Explosive decompression Fuselage tore open from fatigue[48]
Itavia Flight 870 1980 McDonnell Douglas DC-9-15 Bombing or Shootdown (Disputed) 81/81 Explosive decompression Mid-air breakup due to explosion in the cabin (Cause of explosion disputed)
Saudia Flight 162 1980 Lockheed L-1011 TriStar Accident 2/292 Explosive decompression Tyre blowout
Far Eastern Air Transport Flight 103 1981 Boeing 737-222 Accident 110/110 Explosive decompression Severe corrosion and metal fatigue
British Airways Flight 9 1982 Boeing 747-200 Accident 0/263 Gradual decompression Engine flameout due to volcanic ash ingestion
Reeve Aleutian Airways Flight 8 1983 Lockheed L-188 Electra Accident 0/15 Rapid decompression Propeller failure and collision with fuselage
Korean Air Lines Flight 007 1983 Boeing 747-200B Shootdown 269/269 Rapid decompression[49][50] Intentionally fired air-to-air missile after aircraft strayed into prohibited airspace over the Soviet Union[51]
Gulf Air Flight 771 1983 Boeing 737-200 Terrorist bombing 112/112 Explosive decompression Bomb explosion in cargo hold
Byford Dolphin accident 1983 Diving bell Accident 5/6 Explosive decompression Human error, no fail-safe in the design
Air India Flight 182 1985 Boeing 747-200B Terrorist bombing 329/329 Explosive decompression Bomb explosion in cargo hold
Japan Airlines Flight 123 1985 Boeing 747SR Accident 520/524 Explosive decompression Delayed structural failure of the rear pressure bulkhead following improper repairs
Space Shuttle Challenger disaster 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger Accident 7/7 Gradual or rapid decompression Breach in solid rocket booster O-ring, leading to damage from escaping superheated gas and eventual disintegration of launch vehicle
Pan Am Flight 125 1987 Boeing 747-121 Incident 0/245 Rapid decompression Cargo door malfunction
LOT Polish Airlines Flight 5055 1987 Ilyushin Il-62M Accident 183/183 Rapid decompression Uncontained engine failure
Aloha Airlines Flight 243 1988 Boeing 737-200 Accident 1/95 Explosive decompression[52] Metal fatigue
Iran Air Flight 655 1988 Airbus A300B2-203 Shootdown 290/290 Explosive decompression Intentionally fired surface-to-air missiles from the USS Vincennes
Pan Am Flight 103 1988 Boeing 747-100 Terrorist bombing 259/259 Explosive decompression Bomb explosion in cargo hold
United Airlines Flight 811 1989 Boeing 747-122 Accident 9/355 Explosive decompression Cargo door failure
Partnair Flight 394 1989 Convair CV-580 Accident 55/55 Explosive decompression Rudder malfunction due to maintenance error, leading to loss of control and in-flight breakup
UTA Flight 772 1989 Douglas DC-10-30 Terrorist bombing 170/170 Explosive decompression Bomb explosion in cargo hold
Avianca Flight 203 1989 Boeing 727-21 Terrorist bombing 107/107 Explosive decompression Bomb explosion igniting vapours in an empty fuel tank
British Airways Flight 5390 1990 BAC One-Eleven Incident 0/87 Rapid decompression[53] Cockpit windscreen failure
Copa Airlines Flight 201 1992 Boeing 737-200 Advanced Accident 47/47 Explosive decompression Spatial disorientation leading to steep dive and mid-air breakup
China Northwest Airlines Flight 2303 1994 Tupolev TU-154M Accident 160/160 Explosive decompression Improper maintenance
Delta Air Lines Flight 157 1995 Lockheed L-1011 TriStar Accident 0/236 Rapid decompression Structural failure of the bulkhead following inadequate inspection of the airframe[54]
TWA Flight 800 1996 Boeing 747-100 Accident 230/230 Explosive decompression Vapour explosion in fuel tank
Progress M-34 docking test 1997 Spektr space station module Accident 0/3 Rapid decompression Collision while in orbit
TAM Airlines Flight 283 1997 Fokker 100 Bombing 1/60 Explosive decompression Bomb explosion[55]
SilkAir Flight 185 1997 Boeing 737-300 (Disputed) 104/104 Explosive decompression Steep dive and mid-air breakup (Cause of crash disputed)
Lionair Flight 602 1998 Antonov An-24RV Shootdown 55/55 Rapid decompression Probable MANPAD shootdown
1999 South Dakota Learjet crash 1999 Learjet 35 Accident 6/6 Gradual or rapid decompression (Undetermined)
EgyptAir Flight 990 1999 Boeing 767-300ER (Disputed) [56] 217/217 Explosive decompression Uncontrollable dive leading to mid-air breakup (Cause of crash disputed)
2000 Australia Beechcraft King Air crash 2000 Beechcraft Super King Air Accident 8/8 Gradual decompression Inconclusive; likely pilot error or mechanical failure[57]
American Airlines Flight 1291 2000 Airbus A300-600R Accident 1/133 Rapid decompression Cabin outflow valve malfunction.[58]
Hainan Island incident 2001 Lockheed EP-3 Accident 1/25 Rapid decompression Mid-air collision
TAM Flight 9755 2001 Fokker 100 Accident 1/88 Rapid decompression Uncontained engine failure[55]
China Airlines Flight 611 2002 Boeing 747-200B Accident 225/225 Explosive decompression Metal fatigue
Space Shuttle Columbia disaster 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia Accident 7/7 Explosive decompression[59] Damage to orbiter thermal protection system at liftoff, leading to disintegration during reentry
Pinnacle Airlines Flight 3701 2004 Bombardier CRJ-200 Accident 2/2 Gradual decompression Engine flameout caused by pilot error
Helios Airways Flight 522 2005 Boeing 737-300 Accident 121/121 Gradual decompression Pressurization system set to manual for the entire flight[60]
Alaska Airlines Flight 536 2005 McDonnell Douglas MD-80 Incident 0/142 Rapid decompression Failure of operator to report collision involving a baggage loading cart at the departure gate[61]
Adam Air Flight 574 2007 Boeing 737-400 Accident 102/102 Explosive decompression Spatial disorientation leading to steep dive and mid-air breakup
Qantas Flight 30 2008 Boeing 747-400 Incident 0/365 Rapid decompression[62] Fuselage ruptured by oxygen cylinder explosion
Southwest Airlines Flight 2294 2009 Boeing 737-300 Incident 0/131 Rapid decompression Metal fatigue[63]
Southwest Airlines Flight 812 2011 Boeing 737-300 Incident 0/123 Rapid decompression Metal fatigue[64]
Asiana Airlines Flight 991 2011 Boeing 747-400F Accident 2/2 Explosive decompression In-flight fire leading to mid-air breakup.[65]
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 2014 Boeing 777-200ER Shootdown 298/298 Explosive decompression Shot down over Ukraine
Daallo Airlines Flight 159 2016 Airbus A321 Terrorist bombing 1/81 Explosive decompression Bomb explosion in passenger cabin[66]
Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 2018 Boeing 737-700 Accident 1/148 Rapid decompression Uncontained engine failure caused by metal fatigue[67][68]
Sichuan Airlines Flight 8633 2018 Airbus A319-100 Accident 0/128 Explosive decompression Cockpit windscreen failure
2022 Baltic Sea Cessna Citation crash 2022 Cessna Citation II Accident 4/4 Gradual decompression Under investigation
Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 2024 Boeing 737 MAX 9 Accident 0/177 Explosive decompression Door plug failure; under investigation.[69]


A bullet through a window may cause explosive decompression[edit]

In 2004, the TV show MythBusters examined whether explosive decompression occurs when a bullet is fired through the fuselage of an airplane informally by way of several tests using a decommissioned pressurised DC-9. A single shot through the side or the window did not have any effect – it took actual explosives to cause explosive decompression – suggesting that the fuselage is designed to prevent people from being blown out.[70] Professional pilot David Lombardo states that a bullet hole would have no perceived effect on cabin pressure as the hole would be smaller than the opening of the aircraft's outflow valve.[71]

NASA scientist Geoffrey A. Landis points out though that the impact depends on the size of the hole, which can be expanded by debris that is blown through it. Landis went on to say that "it would take about 100 seconds for pressure to equalise through a roughly 30.0 cm (11.8 in) hole in the fuselage of a Boeing 747." He then stated that anyone sitting next to the hole would have about half a ton of force pulling them towards it.[72] At least two confirmed cases have been documented of a person being blown through an airplane passenger window. The first occurred in 1973 when debris from an engine failure struck a window roughly midway in the fuselage. Despite efforts to pull the passenger back into the airplane, the occupant was forced entirely through the cabin window.[15] The passenger's skeletal remains were eventually found by a construction crew, and were positively identified two years later.[16] The second incident occurred on April 17, 2018, when a woman on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 was partially blown through an airplane passenger window that had broken from a similar engine failure. Although the other passengers were able to pull her back inside, she later died from her injuries.[17][18][19] In both incidents, the plane landed safely with the sole fatality being the person seated next to the window involved. Fictional accounts of this include a scene in Goldfinger, when James Bond kills the eponymous villain by blowing him out a passenger window[73] and Die Another Day, when an errant gunshot shatters a window on a cargo plane and rapidly expands, causing multiple enemy officials, henchmen and the main villain to be sucked out to their deaths.

Exposure to a vacuum causes the body to explode[edit]

This persistent myth is based on a failure to distinguish between two types of decompression and their exaggerated portrayal in some fictional works. The first type of decompression deals with changing from normal atmospheric pressure (one atmosphere) to a vacuum (zero atmosphere) which is usually centered around space exploration. The second type of decompression changes from exceptionally high pressure (many atmospheres) to normal atmospheric pressure (one atmosphere) as may occur in deep-sea diving.

The first type is more common as pressure reduction from normal atmospheric pressure to a vacuum can be found in both space exploration and high-altitude aviation. Research and experience have shown that while exposure to a vacuum causes swelling, human skin is tough enough to withstand the drop of one atmosphere.[74][75] The most serious risk from vacuum exposure is hypoxia, in which the body is starved of oxygen, leading to unconsciousness within a few seconds.[76][77] Rapid uncontrolled decompression can be much more dangerous than vacuum exposure itself. Even if the victim does not hold their breath, venting through the windpipe may be too slow to prevent the fatal rupture of the delicate alveoli of the lungs.[78] Eardrums and sinuses may also be ruptured by rapid decompression, and soft tissues may be affected by bruises seeping blood. If the victim somehow survived, the stress and shock would accelerate oxygen consumption, leading to hypoxia at a rapid rate.[79] At the extremely low pressures encountered at altitudes above about 63,000 feet (19,000 m), the boiling point of water becomes less than normal body temperature.[74] This measure of altitude is known as the Armstrong limit, which is the practical limit to survivable altitude without pressurization. Fictional accounts of bodies exploding due to exposure from a vacuum include, among others, several incidents in the movie Outland, while in the movie Total Recall, characters appear to suffer effects of ebullism and blood boiling when exposed to the atmosphere of Mars.

The second type is rare since it involves a pressure drop over several atmospheres, which would require the person to have been placed in a pressure vessel. The only likely situation in which this might occur is during decompression after deep-sea diving. A pressure drop as small as 100 Torr (13 kPa), which produces no symptoms if it is gradual, may be fatal if it occurs suddenly.[78] One such incident occurred in 1983 in the North Sea, where violent explosive decompression from nine atmospheres to one caused four divers to die instantly from massive and lethal barotrauma.[80] Dramatized fictional accounts of this include a scene from the film Licence to Kill, when a character's head explodes after his hyperbaric chamber is rapidly depressurized, and another in the film DeepStar Six, wherein rapid depressurization causes a character to hemorrhage profusely before exploding in a similar fashion.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Notable exceptions include the Airbus A380, Boeing 787, and Concorde


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