Under Pressure!

| 1 Comment
This one is for all you Mitt Romney fans.

Earlier in the week Romney made the comment below after his wife's airplane had to make an emergency landing. 

"When you have a fire in an aircraft, there's no place to go, exactly, there's no -- and you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don't do that. It's a real problem. So it's very dangerous." 
-Mitt Romney, 2012

Well, despite what Romney may think (hopefully he was not being serious), there is actually a pretty darn good reason for why windows on airplanes do NOT open. 

The air at 10,000 feet is quite deadly to anything that needs oxygen to live. Since gravity pulls oxygen molecules toward the ground, the air at this height is extremely thin and would be almost impossible to breathe. At this height alone, we would quickly die from hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen.  Not only is the air too thin to breathe at this height but, it would also be incredibly cold (around -60 degrees!). However, the scary thing is, most commercial airplanes fly at heights around 35,000 feet! That's more than three times an already deadly height!


So, you can imagine that since the air outside is so toxic to us at such extreme heights, that opening our windows would not be a good idea. But, why? How do airplanes keep us from suffering from hypoxia while traveling at such high heights?

Mainly, airplanes have a method of producing pressurized air that is not only safe for us to breathe but also heated. Pressurization occurs when outside air is sucked into the plane by fans and then heated by turbine engines that are directed behind the fans. As the air passes through each stage of compression, it is heated more and more and becomes of a very high pressure. 
This extremely hot and pressurized air is first used to de-ice the wings and to help operate certain important systems in the plane. The air that is left is then cooled to the appropriate temperature with a machine called a intercooler and then it is mixed with the already existing cabin air using a manifold

Keeping the airplane closed up tight is beyond important to successfully producing pressurized air because this method can only occur in an airtight area. Opening a window would no longer make the area airtight. The outside air and the inside air would equalize. The air in the plane would then be too thin to breathe (and too cold) and we would quickly die from hypoxia. Hence, its quite a good thing that airplane windows are unable to be opened. 

Main Sources:
LifeScience.com, Why Plane Windows Don't Roll Down, As Romney Would Like, By: Life's Little Mysteries Staff, Link

Air & Space Magazine,  How Things Work: Cabin Pressure, By: George C. Larson, Link

1 Comment

Its funny that a simple statement by a politician can go viral so quickly. I found your description of pressurization really interesting. It actually made me wonder how people managed to survive air travel before the modern airplanes with controlled atmospheres existed. After some research, I found that back when planes were still open to the elements, pilots used to fill tanks on the plane with oxygen and inhale it through a rubber tube throughout the flight. It actually wasn't until 1937 that the first pressurized cabin made flights much more safe. I guess up until that time, pilots could get into a lot of trouble if their oxygen tube slipped out of their mouth!

For more information on the development of the pressurization system, visit http://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/cit-larson.html

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