What Happens in an Explosive Decompression during Flight?

An explosive decompression is quite similar to a balloon pop. Photo Credit: Ro Irving.

An explosive decompression can happen during any airplane flight, and pilots are trained in the appropriate responses – they know when to react, how to react, and what it all means.

In the event of an explosive decompression, the pilot(s) will inform you of the situation, but understandably, the pilots will not pause their response to the decompression situation or explain on the microphone what explosive decompression is.

If you’re informed ahead of time, it’ll be easier to deal with the aftermath.

Air Pressure in an Aircraft

To supply the cabin with oxygen, airplanes are incorporated with air conditioning and pressurization systems, with multiple systems acting as redundancies.

Any malfunction in the system or a puncture in any of the pressurized parts of the aircraft will lead to loss of pressurized air.

When this happens as a result of a sudden breach, the air bleeds out at a faster rate – that’s what we call an explosive decompression.

Explosive Decompression What Causes It?

Possible loss of pressurization and explosive decompression are the risks we take when flying at higher altitude. As we go higher in the atmosphere, the air pressure decreases. However, to establish a comfortable environment in the aircraft, airplanes generally maintain a cabin pressure equivalent to the air pressure at 8000ft above mean sea level.

When in flight, the pressurized air inside the cabin exerts a force on the walls of the fuselage as a consequence of differential pressure. In simpler terms, the air inside exerts a force to escape outside to an area of lower air pressure. This lays the foundation of all types of explosive decompressions and other causes of loss of pressurization. Punctures, failures of the pressurization systems, and explosions can all result in a loss of air.

How to Recognize an Explosive Decompression in Flight

If you’re a passenger, and the following occurs, don’t panic – it’s most likely an explosive decompression.

  1. The first sign is always a loud bang, as if an explosion had taken place during flight.
  2. The loud bang is often followed by violent jerks.
  3. You may see clouds of condensed air forming almost immediately.
  4. You will feel the flow of air rushing out of the plane.
  5. Oxygen masks will drop down in front of you and the other passengers.
  6. You may see loose items fly through the cabin and out of the plane, as the air flows through the aircraft.

Note: These do not always happen in the order stated above. As a passenger, you might find them happening simultaneously, rather than in any particular order.

Click to Read Page Two: Reacting to Explosive Decompression

© Copyright 2012 Junaid Ali, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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  1. pfbonney says

    I know from the news reports covering the explosive decompression and subsequent crash of the aircraft carrying PGA golf star Payne Stewart that the windows of the affected aircraft ice up.

    I can’t help but wonder if the flight instrumentation also ices up, obscuring their displays, and rendering them unreadable to the pilots.

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