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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Airplanes

Would we all be safer with personal ejector seats? Will flushing while sitting on the airplane toilet suck out your intestines? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: flight. How necessary is stowing that tray table, really? And is your butthole at risk of vacuum-flush inversion? Onwards…

Lie #1: If A Window Breaks, We’re All Getting Sucked Out

Everyone knows that if the window on a plane breaks, we all get immediately sucked out of it, into oblivion. That’s what makes the little holes in the triple-glazed windows all the trippier: These window-building mavericks are playing with FIRE!

The truth is, yeah, you might get sucked out, it’s just very unlikely. The tragic death in 2018 of Southwest Airlines passenger Jennifer Riordan, who died after being partially sucked out of the window of a 737, was described by experts as a “freak event,” one that involved an incredibly unlikely and unfortunate series of coincidences. An engine failed at 32,000 feet (which it shouldn’t have), and blew up (which it normally wouldn’t have), and the shielding in place to stop parts flying out didn’t do so (which it normally would have), and a fan blade propelled at the body of the plane struck a window (the worst possible part it could hit). Seven thousand existing planes are being retrofitted to prevent it from happening again, so it’s even less likely now.

The reason it happens at all is a difference in pressure. The plane cabin is pressurized so people inside it can breathe comfortably, while the pressure outside is lower the higher you go. If a hole appears, rapid depressurisation takes place as all the denser air inside the plane rushes out. The brunt of the time, it’ll be a case of air whooshing out and some small objects being sucked out as the pressure equalizes, while oxygen masks drop from the ceiling (you realistically have about 18 seconds to put one on before passing out) and the pilot descends as quickly as possible. It sounds life-alteringly horrifying, sure, but the vast majority of the time, what you’re looking at is a scary-ass rapid descent in an oxygen mask, surrounded by equally terrified people. 

If it still worries you, book an aisle seat and keep your seatbelt on.

Lie # 2: Flush the Airplane Toilet While Sitting On It And Your Guts Will Get Yanked Out Of Your Asshole

The flush of an airplane toilet is fucking terrifying. It sucks all the air out of that tiny little room, making a noise like Serj Tankian from System Of A Down doing his amazing inhale-roar thing.

But if you made the error of flushing it while still sitting on it, either due to an errant elbow, or doing such a big post-vacation shit that it seemed like there wasn’t room for both you and it on the plane, surely your intestines would be devoured by its gaping metallic maw?

Shit easy, yo. Your guts are safe. 

Well, unless you’re on the larger side, have extremely baggy skin or have an unorthodox manner of sitting on the throne. For the toilet to wrench you inside out, your skin has to form a perfect seal over the seat, something which the seat is specifically designed to make extremely difficult. Foregoing the seat and sitting directly on the rim (which you shouldn’t do anyway because it’s disgusting) makes forming a seal more likely — in 2011, a woman doing this ended up with “significant perineal injury” from a flush.

Toilets on cruise ships, though? Oh, they’ll suck your guts right out.

Lie #3: Plane Safety Rules Are Bullshit 

The safety rules all seem kind of arbitrary. Like, in a plane plummeting to its doom, does it really matter if your tray table is down?

Not necessarily, but in one that lands, skids and requires evacuation, a secured tray table is one fewer obstacle between you and safety, just as having your seat reclined will make life more difficult for the poor sucker behind you. Same with dimming the lights and opening the window shades during landing — in an emergency that cuts the power, you won’t suddenly struggle to deal with the darkness thanks both to natural light and your eyes being adjusted. Plus, the cabin crew can see outside, which is fairly useful when organizing an evacuation.

While wearing your seatbelt isn’t going to make a huge difference in a ball-of-flame situation, it might in a “turbulence causes a quick plunge” one, and be the difference between getting a funny feeling in the tummy/behind-balls area and getting knocked the fuck out on the overhead storage compartment.

Lie #4: Up There, the Air is Clear

Everyone flying is farting, all the time. Fart fart fart, go the butts of everyone on the plane. Fart fart fart, fart fart fart-fart. The pressure on planes is maintained at the equivalent of being 8,000 feet in the air — high enough pressure to feel comfortable, but low enough that gases expand by up to 30 percent (which is why those weird foil-topped glasses of orange juice you sometimes get with breakfast spray everywhere, and if you open a yogurt you end up looking like you’ve ejaculated on yourself). This includes the gasses in your intestines, which escape through your butthole.

Everybody’s dropping ‘em. Some airlines have charcoal filters installed in their ventilation systems to absorb the stench, and (depending on your underwear and pants) the cushion absorbs up to 50 percent of the honk, plus, the air itself is refreshed 20 times an hour. But still: Lotta farts. 

Lie #5: We Should Probably Have Ejector Seats 

Ejector seats are fucking badass, and bound to do a better job of saving lives than a small plastic whistle and an inflatable slide so fragile, you can’t even go on it wearing shoes, right? So why aren’t all airplane seats equipped with a fuck-this lever?

It turns out, ejecting from a fighter plane isn’t a pleasant experience at all, despite clearly being extremely cool. Ejecting at high speed subjects your body to incredibly strong g-forces, which are tough going even for fighter pilots in great physical shape — in the above video, an experienced pilot discusses nearly getting his arms and legs torn off by the force of it. 

The new ACES 5 system employed by the U.S. military uses really impressive technology to protect its occupant, but doesn’t come cheap. While exact prices are hard to find, a second-hand ACES II model will cost you $250,000 or so — think of that as being like buying a refurbished iPhone 4 and extrapolate from there. With a 747 typically carrying around 500 passengers, that’s an expensive-ass plane. Given that people will happily wear everything they own to avoid excess baggage charges, nobody wants to pay doubled fares for an ejector seat they probably won’t get a go on.

Commercial airliners also fly at a high enough altitude that breathing would be a massive issue, so passengers would have to wear oxygen masks at all times, and then there’s landing — 43 percent of ejector seat injuries occur when hitting the ground, and you’re more likely to hurt yourself if (a) you’re just a regular dumbass; and (b) there are hundreds of other screaming idiots plummeting all around you.

Ejector seats also use explosions to escape their aircraft, so planes would be, uh, a lot more explosive. Plus, the way airplane fuselages work would have to be entirely rethought to allow for a blow-uppable hatch above every seat, and if the system were ever deployed, the empty plane left behind would essentially be an extremely large, out-of-control missile. 

So: no.