A python clinging to the wing of a commercial plane, which soared 30,000 feet in the air, died last week. The brave little guy held on from northern Australia to Papua New Guinea, but was apparently dead on arrival. Sad, but it got us thinking: Could a human in the same situation survive the trip?
Believe it or not, there's precedent for this sort of thing, and people involved have made out better than the snake. A pilot got sucked out of an exploded window in 1990, and was left hanging on to the crew for his life. They pulled him in a few minutes later, frostbitten but alive. As for full flights, a Romanian man clinging to the landing gear from Vienna to London (750 miles) survived though he also got frostbite. And one report said a 15-year-old boy made it through a 2007 journey from Perm, Russia, to Moscow (808 miles) stowed away inside the wing of a Boeing-737, so severely frostbitten by the end that crews couldn't remove his shoes or coat. But alive.
In every one of those cases there was a qualifier: exposure to the elements only lasted a few minutes; the flight was traveling especially close to the ground because of rough weather; it happened inside the wing, not outside. Trying to make it through a full, high-altitude flight hanging onto the outside of a wing like our friend the snake did? That's tougher.
To keep this simple, we'll talk about the scenario as though some people were somehow tossed out at 30,000 feet and landed on the wing of a 737--maybe "if someone didn't like them," says Jason Kring, assistant professor of human factors and systems at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The first problem is obvious: there's not a place to hang on to the exterior of a plane traveling 400 or 500 mph. But say they were strapped down to it (someone was really angry, presumably). At 30,000 feet, while trying to breathe, "the air in their lungs… would expand so quickly they would, for lack of a better term, explode," Kring says. Boyle's law says there's an inverse relationship between atmospheric pressure and the volume of a gas. That doesn't bode well for people's lungs, which would "expand like a balloon."
Next, there's the problem of the cold. Traveling at that height, the temperature could be 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit--maybe colder. (That's not even factoring in the wind chill when zooming by at 500 mph.) That's enough for extremities like the eyes, mouth, and nose to freeze almost instantly, Kring says.
If the unfortunate passengers took off at sea level while strapped down instead of being tossed out, they'd do a little better, but not much. They could, maybe, get up a few thousand feet before the cold and oxygen issues factored in, but definitely not to 30,000 feet.
No, what these people would need is a plan. If they were somehow strapped down un-maliciously, with help from experts, maybe they'd have a shot at making it. A pressurized suit with thermal protection and an oxygen system could keep them safe for the flight, Kring suggests. An astronaut's suit might fit the bill: NASA suits can regulate temperature (hot or cold) by sending liquid through the system, keeping a body in homeostasis, as long as that body is safely on the wing. (Daredevil jumper Felix Baumgartner's suit was insulated, but didn't regulate heat through liquid the same way NASA suits do.) Theoretically, with enough oxygen in the system, people on the wing could make it from China to Mexico, Russia to South Africa, or anywhere to anywhere else.
"He might get bored and he might have other problems of using the restroom or some other factor," Kring says. Other than that? Nice and snug.
"The air in their lungs… would expand so quickly they would explode."
All US Air Force air crew experience rapid decompression as a part of their training. Not a single Airman has exploded to date.
Here is a video of this training. Sea level pressure to pressure altitude 25,000 ft in one second.
Keep in mind that cabin pressure for commercial aircraft is closer to 8,000 ft pressure altitude than sea level pressure. So this training is more or less equivalent to rapid decompression at 30,000 ft.
Anyway, I clearly remember undergoing this training years ago, and lung expansion was not an issue. I remain unexploded.
I also have to beg to differ on -30F being cold enough to freeze exposed parts instantly. That might be close to true if their was no blood flow or radiated heat from the body, but I've been out in this weather and my nose did not freeze instantly, in fact I have no frostbite, Your snot does instantly crystalize though. of course it probably would with the 500 MPH winds, but that's not what you are stating.
"They could, maybe, get up a few thousand feet before the cold and oxygen issues factored in, but definitely not to 30,000 feet."
All pressurized aircraft are pressurized to approx 8,000 ft pressure altitude. So, most people can go higher than a few thousand feet before having oxygen issues.
Reinhold Messner climbed Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen in 1978. That's 29,000 ft. Not the average person obviously, but it clearly is possible to survive up there without oxygen.
For the average person, you would need clothes to keep you warm and supplemental oxygen with a pressurized mask. Essentially, the same stuff you would need for an Everest assent, except for the climbing gear.
I thought it was illegal to be high on a plane or is that in the plane, huh?
30,000 feet up, extreme cold and a wind speed child factor that is off the charts; nope, would not live.
And yes add a protected environment like a space suit, survivable.
So yea, protect the human and then he cans endure long distances, duh!
I think they're mixed up on the issue of the volume of gas in the person's lungs. If you went from sea level to 30,000ft instantly and your mouth and nose were taped shut then maybe your lungs would explode, but that's not a realistic scenario. I think the real problem at 30,000 ft would be that the air would be much thinner, maybe too thing to breathe.
As far as heat, I think your body heat along with any heat generated by the plane's engines might keep you alive.
Your biggest problem would be hanging on. Even if there was a handle for you to grab onto, it would be a wild ride.