Q: How does this square with the notion that a puncture in the fuselage — e.g. a bullet hole — can bring a plane down?
Notice you say can bring down a plane, and chances are high that a bullet puncture would not. The precise dynamics of every decompression will differ, varying mainly on the aircraft’s altitude (i.e. the amount of pressurization), speed, and the specific location and size of any breach.
Aloha was fortunate that after losing its roof and sidewalls, the hull was not weakened to a point where it succumbed to a catastrophic destruction. Compare to the bomb that destroyed Pan Am 103 in 1988, whereby the explosion itself blew only a 15-foot, star-shaped hole in the lower fuselage. Resultant forces wrecked the entire plane within seconds. Two years earlier, a TWA 727 survived a similar bomb-induced cabin rupture, while a United 747 once landed successfully after losing a cargo door and large chunk of its cabin skin. In other words, it depends.
The Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters” series tested the premise that a bullet penetrating the skin of an airliner would result in disaster. They sealed and pressurized several mothballed commercial aircraft to recreate the conditions of high-altitude cruise, remotely firing a 9mm pistol from inside. Though not fully replicating the exact conditions of flight, the results were surprising. Even when a window was completely blown out, the punctures did not create larger tears in the structure, at worst inducing a fully manageable rate of decompression.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.