Uncontrolled decompression is an unplanned drop in the pressure of a sealed system, such as an aircraft cabin, and typically results from human error, material fatigue, engineering failure, or impact, causing a pressure vessel to vent into its lower-pressure surroundings or fail to pressurize at all.
Such decompression may be classed as Explosive, Rapid, or Slow:
- Explosive decompression (ED) is violent, the decompression being too fast for air to safely escape from the lungs.
- Rapid decompression, while still fast, is slow enough to allow the lungs to vent.
- Slow or gradual decompression occurs so slowly that it may not be sensed before hypoxia sets in.
The term uncontrolled decompression here refers to the unplanned depressurisation of vessels that are occupied by people; for example, a pressurised aircraft cabin at high altitude, a spacecraft, or a hyperbaric chamber. For the catastrophic failure of other pressure vessels used to contain gas, liquids, or reactants under pressure, the term explosion is more commonly used, or other specialised terms such as BLEVE may apply to particular situations.
Decompression can occur due to structural failure of the pressure vessel, or failure of the compression system itself. The speed and violence of the decompression is affected by the size of the pressure vessel, the differential pressure between the inside and outside of the vessel, and the size of the leak hole.
The US Federal Aviation Administration recognizes three distinct types of decompression events in aircraft:
- Explosive decompression
- Rapid decompression
- Gradual decompression
Explosive decompression occurs at a rate swifter than that at which air can escape from the lungs, typically in less than 0.1 to 0.5 seconds. The risk of lung trauma is very high, as is the danger from any unsecured objects that can become projectiles because of the explosive force, which may be likened to a bomb detonation.
After an explosive decompression within an aircraft, a heavy fog may immediately fill the interior as the relative humidity of cabin air rapidly changes as the air cools and condenses. Military pilots with oxygen masks have to pressure-breathe, whereby the lungs fill with air when relaxed, and effort has to be exerted to expel the air again.
Rapid decompression typically takes more than 0.1 to 0.5 seconds, allowing the lungs to decompress more quickly than the cabin. The risk of lung damage is still present, but significantly reduced compared with explosive decompression.
Slow, or gradual, decompression occurs slowly enough to go unnoticed and might only be detected by instruments. This type of decompression may also come about from a failure to pressurize as an aircraft climbs to altitude. An example of this is the 2005 Helios Airways Flight 522 crash, in which the pilots failed to check the aircraft was pressurising automatically and then to react to the warnings that the aircraft was depressurising, eventually losing consciousness (along with most of the passengers and crew) from hypoxia.
Pressure vessel seals and testing
Seals in high-pressure vessels are also susceptible to explosive decompression; the O-rings or rubber gaskets used to seal pressurised pipelines tend to become saturated with high-pressure gases. If the pressure inside the vessel is suddenly released, then the gases within the rubber gasket may expand violently, causing blistering or explosion of the material. For this reason, it is common for military and industrial equipment to be subjected to an explosive decompression test before it is certified as safe for use.
Exposure to a vacuum causes the body to explode
This persistent myth is based on a failure to distinguish between two types of decompression: the first, from normal atmospheric pressure (one atmosphere) to a vacuum (zero atmospheres); the second, from an exceptionally high pressure (many atmospheres) to normal atmospheric pressure.
The first type, a sudden change from normal atmospheric pressure to a vacuum, is the more common. Research and experience in space exploration and high-altitude aviation have shown that while exposure to vacuum causes swelling, human skin is tough enough to withstand the drop of one atmosphere, although the resulting hypoxia will cause unconsciousness after a few seconds. It is also possible that pulmonary barotrauma (lung rupture) will occur if the breath is forcibly held.
The second type is rare, since the only normal situation in which it can occur is during decompression after deep-sea diving. In fact, there is only a single well-documented occurrence: the 1983 Byford Dolphin incident in the North Sea, in which a catastrophic pressure drop of eight atmospheres, from nine atmospheres to one atmosphere instantaneously, caused massive and lethal barotrauma, including the actual explosion of one diver. A similar but fictional death was shown in the James Bond film Licence to Kill, when a character's head explodes after his hyperbaric chamber is rapidly depressurized. Neither of these incidents would have been possible if the pressure drop had been only from normal atmosphere to a vacuum.
Bullets cause explosive decompression
Aircraft fuselages are designed with ribs to prevent tearing; the size of the hole is one of the factors that determine the speed of decompression, and a bullet hole is too small to cause rapid or explosive decompression.
A small hole will blow people out of a fuselage
The television program Mythbusters examined this belief informally using a pressurised aircraft and several scale tests. The Mythbusters approximations suggested that fuselage design does not allow this to happen.
The following physical injuries may be associated with decompression incidents:
- Hypoxia is the most serious risk associated with decompression, especially as it may go undetected or incapacitate the aircrew.
- Barotrauma: an inability to equalize pressure in internal air spaces such as the middle ear or gastrointestinal tract, or more serious injury such as a burst lung.
- Decompression sickness.
- Physical trauma caused by the violence of explosive decompression, which can turn people and loose objects into projectiles.
- Altitude sickness
- Frostbite or hypothermia from exposure to freezing cold air at high altitude.
Implications for aircraft design
Modern aircraft are specifically designed with longitudinal and circumferential reinforcing ribs in order to prevent localised damage from tearing the whole fuselage open during a decompression incident. However, decompression events have nevertheless proved fatal for aircraft in other ways. In 1974, explosive decompression onboard Turkish Airlines Flight 981 caused the floor to collapse, severing vital flight control cables in the process. The FAA issued an Airworthiness Directive the following year requiring manufacturers of wide-body aircraft to strengthen floors so that they could withstand the effects of in-flight decompression caused by an opening of up to 20 square feet (1.9 m2) in the lower deck cargo compartment. Manufacturers were able to comply with the Directive either by strengthening the floors and/or installing relief vents called "dado panels" between the passenger cabin and the cargo compartment.
Cabin doors are designed to make it nearly impossible to lose pressurization through opening a cabin door in flight, either accidentally or intentionally. The plug door design ensures that when the pressure inside the cabin exceeds the pressure outside the doors are forced shut and will not open until the pressure is equalised. Cabin doors, including the emergency exits, but not all cargo doors, open inwards, or must first be pulled inwards and then rotated before they can be pushed out through the door frame because at least one dimension of the door is larger than the door frame. Pressurization apparently prevented the doors of Saudia Flight 163 from being opened on the ground after the aircraft made a successful emergency landing, resulting in the deaths of all 287 passengers and 14 crew members from fire and smoke.
Prior to 1996, approximately 6,000 large commercial transport airplanes were type certified to fly up to 45,000 feet (14,000 m), without being required to meet special conditions related to flight at high altitude. In 1996, the FAA adopted Amendment 25-87, which imposed additional high-altitude cabin-pressure specifications, for new designs of aircraft types. For aircraft certified to operate above 25,000 feet (FL 250; 7,600 m), it "must be designed so that occupants will not be exposed to cabin pressure altitudes in excess of 15,000 feet (4,600 m) after any probable failure condition in the pressurization system." In the event of a decompression which results from "any failure condition not shown to be extremely improbable," the aircraft must be designed so that occupants will not be exposed to a cabin altitude exceeding 25,000 feet (7,600 m) for more than 2 minutes, nor exceeding an altitude of 40,000 feet (12,000 m) at any time. In practice, that new FAR amendment imposes an operational ceiling of 40,000 feet on the majority of newly designed commercial aircraft.
In 2004, Airbus successfully petitioned the FAA to allow cabin pressure of the A380 to reach 43,000 feet (13,000 m) in the event of a decompression incident and to exceed 40,000 feet (12,000 m) for one minute. This special exemption allows the A380 to operate at a higher altitude than other newly designed civilian aircraft, which have not yet been granted a similar exemption.
The Depressurization Exposure Integral (DEI) is a quantitative model that is used by the FAA to enforce compliance with decompression-related design directives. The model relies on the fact that the pressure that the subject is exposed to and the duration of that exposure are the two most important variables at play in a decompression event.
Other national and international standards for explosive decompression testing include:
- MIL-STD-810, 202
- NORSOK M710
- API 17K and 17J
- NACE TM0192 and TM0297
- TOTALELFFINA SP TCS 142 Appendix H
Notable decompression accidents and incidents
Decompression incidents are not uncommon on military and civilian aircraft, with approximately 40–50 rapid decompression events occurring worldwide annually. In the majority of cases the problem is relatively manageable for aircrew. Consequently, where passengers and the aircraft do not suffer any ill-effects, the incidents tend not to be considered notable. Injuries resulting from decompression incidents are rare.
Decompression incidents do not occur solely in aircraft—the Byford Dolphin incident is an example of violent explosive decompression on an oil rig. A decompression event is an effect of a failure caused by another problem (such as an explosion or mid-air collision), but the decompression event may worsen the initial issue.
|Event||Date||Pressure vessel||Event type||Fatalities/number on board||Decompression type||Cause|
|BOAC Flight 781||1954||de Havilland Comet 1||Accident||35/35||Explosive decompression||Metal fatigue|
|South African Airways Flight 201||1954||de Havilland Comet 1||Accident||21/21||Explosive decompression||Metal fatigue|
|TWA Flight 2||1956||Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation||Accident||70/70||Explosive decompression||Mid-air collision|
|1961 Yuba City B-52 crash||1961||Boeing B-52 Stratofortress||Accident||0/8||Gradual or rapid decompression||(Undetermined)|
|Volsk parachute jump accident||1962||Pressure suit||Accident||1/1||Rapid decompression||Collision with gondola upon jumping from balloon|
|Strato Jump III||1966||Pressure suit||Accident||1/1||Rapid decompression||Pressure suit failure|
|Apollo program spacesuit testing accident||1966||Apollo A7L spacesuit (or possibly a prototype of it)||Accident||0/1||Rapid decompression||Oxygen line coupling failure|
|Soyuz 11 re-entry||1971||Soyuz spacecraft||Accident||3/3||Rapid decompression||Pressure equalisation valve damaged by faulty pyrotechnic separation charges|
|BEA Flight 706||1971||Vickers Vanguard||Accident||63/63||Explosive decompression||Structural failure of rear pressure bulkhead, leading to separation of horizontal stabiliser|
|LANSA Flight 508||1971||Lockheed L-188A Electra||Accident||91/92||Explosive decompression||Lightning strike and fuel vapour fire, leading to separation of right wing|
|JAT Flight 367||1972||McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32||Terrorist bombing||27/28||Explosive decompression||Bomb explosion in cargo hold|
|American Airlines Flight 96||1972||Douglas DC-10-10||Accident||0/67||Rapid decompression||Cargo door failure|
|National Airlines Flight 27||1973||Douglas DC-10-10||Accident||1/116||Explosive decompression||Uncontained engine failure|
|Turkish Airlines Flight 981||1974||Douglas DC-10-10||Accident||346/346||Explosive decompression||Cargo door failure|
|1975 Tan Son Nhut C-5 accident||1975||Lockheed C-5 Galaxy||Accident||155/330||Explosive decompression||Improper maintenance of rear doors, cargo door failure|
|British Airways Flight 476||1976||Hawker Siddeley Trident 3B||Accident||63/63||Explosive decompression||Mid-air collision|
|Korean Air Lines Flight 902||1978||Boeing 707-320B||Shootdown||2/109||Explosive decompression||Shootdown after straying into prohibited airspace over the Soviet Union|
|Saudia Flight 162||1980||Lockheed L-1011 TriStar||Accident||2/292||Explosive decompression||Tyre blowout|
|Far Eastern Air Transport Flight 103||1981||Boeing 737-200||Accident||110/110||Explosive decompression||Corrosion|
|Reeve Aleutian Airways Flight 8||1983||Lockheed L-188 Electra||Accident||0/15||Explosive decompression||Propeller failure and collision with fuselage|
|Korean Air Lines Flight 007||1983||Boeing 747-200B||Shootdown||269/269||Rapid decompression||Intentionally fired air-to-air missile after aircraft strayed into prohibited airspace over the Soviet Union|
|Byford Dolphin accident||1983||Diving bell||Accident||5/6||Explosive decompression||Human error, no fail-safe in the design|
|Japan Airlines Flight 123||1985||Boeing 747SR||Accident||520/524||Explosive decompression||Structural failure of rear pressure bulkhead|
|Air India Flight 182||1985||Boeing 747-200B||Terrorist bombing||329/329||Explosive decompression||Bomb explosion in cargo hold|
|1985 Alia incident||1985||Lockheed L-1011 TriStar||Incident||0/?||Rapid decompression||In-flight fire which burned though the rear pressure bulkhead|
|Space Shuttle Challenger disaster||1986||Space Shuttle Challenger||Accident||7/7||Gradual or rapid decompression||Breach in solid rocket booster O-ring, leading to damage from escaping superheated gas and eventual disintegration of launch vehicle|
|Pan Am Flight 125||1987||Boeing 747-121||Incident||0/245||Rapid decompression||Cargo door malfunction|
|LOT Flight 5055||1987||Ilyushin Il-62M||Accident||183/183||Rapid decompression||Uncontained engine failure|
|Aloha Airlines Flight 243||1988||Boeing 737-200||Accident||1/95||Explosive decompression||Metal fatigue|
|Iran Air Flight 655||1988||Airbus A300B2-203||Shootdown||290/290||Explosive decompression||Intentionally fired surface-to-air missiles from the USS Vincennes|
|Pan Am Flight 103||1988||Boeing 747-100||Terrorist bombing||259/259||Explosive decompression||Bomb explosion in cargo hold|
|United Airlines Flight 811||1989||Boeing 747-100||Accident||9/355||Explosive decompression||Cargo door failure|
|UTA Flight 772||1989||Douglas DC-10-30||Terrorist bombing||170/170||Explosive decompression||Bomb explosion in cargo hold|
|British Airways Flight 5390||1990||BAC One-Eleven||Incident||0/87||Rapid decompression||Cockpit windscreen failure|
|TWA Flight 800||1996||Boeing 747-100||Accident||230/230||Explosive decompression||Vapour explosion in fuel tank|
|Progress M-34 docking test||1997||Spektr space station module||Accident||0/3||Rapid decompression||Collision while in orbit|
|Lionair Flight 602||1998||Antonov An-24RV||Shootdown||55/55||Rapid decompression||Probable MANPAD shootdown|
|1999 South Dakota Learjet crash||1999||Learjet 35||Accident||6/6||Gradual or rapid decompression||(Undetermined)|
|Australia “Ghost Flight”||2000||Beechcraft Super King Air||Accident||8/8||Decompression suspected||(Undetermined)|
|Hainan Island incident||2001||Lockheed EP-3||Accident||0/24||Rapid decompression||Mid-air collision|
|TAM Airlines Flight 9755||2001||Fokker 100||Accident||1/82||Rapid decompression||Window ruptured by shrapnel after engine failure|
|China Airlines Flight 611||2002||Boeing 747-200B||Accident||225/225||Explosive decompression||Metal fatigue|
|Bashkirian Airlines Flight 2937||2002||Tupolev Tu-154M||Accident||69/69||Explosive decompression||Mid-air collision|
|Space Shuttle Columbia disaster||2003||Space Shuttle Columbia||Accident||7/7||Rapid decompression||Damage to orbiter thermal protection system at liftoff, leading to disintegration during reentry|
|Helios Airways Flight 522||2005||Boeing 737-300||Accident||121/121||Gradual decompression||Pressurization system set to manual for the entire flight|
|Alaska Airlines Flight 536||2005||McDonnell Douglas MD-80||Incident||0/142||Rapid decompression||Failure of operator to report collision involving a baggage loading cart at the departure gate|
|Qantas Flight 30||2008||Boeing 747-400||Incident||0/365||Rapid decompression||Fuselage ruptured by explosion of an oxygen cylinder|
|Southwest Airlines Flight 2294||2009||Boeing 737-300||Incident||0/131||Rapid decompression||Metal fatigue|
|Southwest Airlines Flight 812||2011||Boeing 737-300||Incident||0/123||Rapid decompression||Metal fatigue|
|Allegiant Air Flight 683||2014||McDonnell Douglas MD-83||Incident||0/159||Rapid decompression||Broken seal (under investigation)|
|2014 SOCATA TBM crash||2014||SOCATA TBM-900||Accident||2/2||Decompression suspected|
|Malaysia Airlines Flight 17||2014||Boeing 777-200ER||Shootdown||298/298||Explosive decompression||Shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile launcher|
|Metrojet Flight 9268||2015||Airbus A321-231||Terrorist bombing||224/224||Explosive decompression||Bombing suspected; under investigation|
|Delta Air Lines Flight 4058||2016||Bombardier CRJ900||Incident||0/66||Rapid decompression||Under investigation|
|Daallo Airlines Flight 159||2016||Airbus A321||Terrorist bombing||1/81||Explosive decompression||Suicide bombing; under investigation|
- Cabin pressurization
- Decompression (altitude)
- Decompression (physics)
- Space exposure
- Time of useful consciousness
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The 51-L Challenger accident investigation showed that the Challenger CM remained intact and the crew was able to take some immediate actions after vehicle breakup, although the loads experienced were much higher as a result of the aerodynamic loads (estimated at 16 G to 21 G).5 The Challenger crew became incapacitated quickly and could not complete activation of all breathing air systems, leading to the conclusion that an incapacitating cabin depressurization occurred. By comparison, the Columbia crew experienced lower loads (~3.5 G) at the CE. The fact that none of the crew members lowered their visors strongly suggests that the crew was incapacitated after the CE by a rapid depressurization. Although no quantitative conclusion can be made regarding the cabin depressurization rate, it is probable that the cabin depressurization rate was high enough to incapacitate the crew in a matter of seconds. Conclusion L1-5. The depressurization incapacitated the crew members so rapidly that they were not able to lower their helmet visors.
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