Pressurized airplane cabins using compressed air

Last week the world was treated to an unexpected spectacle – the sight of an airplane cabin with a big hole in it open to the sky. We can imagine that this spectacle was even more unexpected to people who were on the flight. If you saw photos or video of the hole, you may have also been struck by how little there is between “inside” and “outside” in an airplane. There is a piece of plastic headliner on the inside of the plane, some insulation and then a thin aluminum skin on the exterior of the plane. That’s it.

It brings up an interesting question – what is going on inside an airplane cabin when it is cruising at 33,000 feet? It turns out that passengers are flying in something that vaguely resembles a space capsule. Let’s take a look at how the space capsule works.

The first thing to understand is that people dressed in normal clothing definitely cannot survive at 33,000. This altitude is roughly the equivalent to standing at the summit of Mount Everest. If there were some way you could stick your arm out the window at 33,000 feet, the first thing you would notice is that it is incredibly cold – minus 40 degrees F or colder. The second problem is incredibly low air pressure. The pressure is so low that people would pass out very quickly from lack of oxygen. The air at that altitude and temperature is also extremely dry.

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