In an astonishing tale of modern technology’s durability, an iPhone recently survived an accidental fall out of an Alaska Airlines plane at over 16,000 feet. Discovered in working condition by a passerby near Portland, Oregon, the phone had clearly been subjected to intense forces during the high-altitude tumble to earth. Yet its intact screen and still-functioning systems speak to the impressive resilience that consumers have come to expect from today’s smartphones.
The phone’s owner, whose identity remains unknown, had apparently left the device charging in a seatback pocket when a catastrophic depressurization blew a hole in the side of the plane. Violently sucked through the gap along with other unsecured items, the phone began an uncontrolled freefall toward the suburbs below. Witnesses would later describe hearing loud “thumps” as objects from the plane struck the ground.
For air travelers, thoughts of personal electronics getting blown out of an airplane conjure up frightening visions of deadly projectiles. Indeed, federal regulations prohibit the use of devices like laptops or gaming systems during takeoff and landing precisely because of this hazard. However, experts say that a phone descending on its own poses minimal risk thanks to the wonders of physics.
According to researchers, the phone likely tumbled chaotically and obtained speeds much lower than our intuition would predict. The key is air resistance, which increases dramatically with velocity. “A phone falling from a plane only reaches around 50 mph due to air friction, compared to over 100 mph in a vacuum,” explains Dr. Duncan Watts, a physicist at the University of Oslo. “Also, being light, it doesn’t have a lot of momentum when it hits the ground.”
Granted, 50 mph is hardly a gentle speed. But Dr. Watts points out that it’s similar to dropping a phone off a chair or low roof – unpleasant scenarios, but ones that handsets can be engineered to handle. He estimates that hitting the ground at this speed is equivalent to about 10 times the impact of falling from 5 feet. While the average person might expect a phone to shatter, manufacturers build in generous safety margins.
And luck played a role too. According to its finder, the device landed in bushes and foliage – not on an unforgiving sidewalk. This padded landing spot likely cushioned the last instants of its fall. “The phone got very fortunate, really,” says Dr. Watts. “But it goes to show how resilient modern technology has become in our daily lives.”
The day after the incident, a local resident near the Portland airport happened upon the phone while walking his dog. Recognizing it could belong to a passenger from the troubled Alaska Airlines flight, he contacted authorities. Investigators were surprised and delighted: this was now the second phone from the plane that had been recovered in working order.
The success of the phone is all the more remarkable considering the catastrophic violence in the cabin just minutes before. Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 had departed Portland late in the afternoon, headed to San Diego with 179 passengers and crew on board. About 20 minutes after takeoff at 16,000 feet, the right-side cockpit door blew open explosively, causing immediate depressurization.
Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling as the pilots initiated an emergency descent. A loud bang reverberated through the plane as the door tore completely off, leaving a gaping hole in the fuselage. Unsecured items were snatched by the roaring wind and swept out into the cold high-altitude air. Meanwhile, the plane shook violently.
One passenger later described it as “the scariest experience of my life.” Another worried their oxygen mask wasn’t working properly as cabin alarms blared. Parents clutched terrified children in their laps. Even for veteran travelers like the crew, the sudden chaos was jarring and intense.
Remarkably though, the pilots were able to safely divert the stricken jet back to Portland where firefighters rushed to meet it. No serious injuries were reported among those onboard. An examination would reveal extensive damage inside, hundreds of scratches and dents, and wiring ripped out by horrific wind forces. But the plane had held together just enough to limp home.
In the subsequent days, normal operations gradually resumed at Portland International Airport following a temporary ground stop. The Federal Aviation Administration praised the flight crew for their skillful handling of the emergency. Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into what caused the door failure in the first place.
Factors being looked at include a possible faulty maintenance seal and if a design issue contributed. There is also scrutiny around whether a post-flight inspection in San Diego earlier that day had missed any problems. This model of Boeing 737 relies on plug-style doors that seal pressurized cabins. Alaska Airlines has already pledged to inspect the rest of its 737 fleet for similar issues.
But as the aviation world studies how to prevent such an occurrence again, the survives-a-plane-fall phone has become an unlikely object of fascination. Who did it belong to? Could it provide more clues about what happened onboard? And what brand of phone has such resilience?
The finder was not able to unlock the device to see any owner information or photos. But the phone’s exterior case appears consistent with an iPhone, and a screenshot of an Alaska Airlines receipt visible on the locked screen confirms it was recently charging before departure. Apple has yet to comment publicly on whether this durability feat sets a new record for iPhones.
Incredibly, there has been at least one other report of an iPhone surviving a fall from an aircraft. Last year, a skydiver posted on social media about his device plummeting over 14,000 feet to the ground when it slipped from his pocket, yet still working afterwards. However, at terminal velocity a phone falls slower when tumbling freely compared to alongside a person.
While the anonymous owner of the Alaska Airlines phone is likely distressed over the incident, they may end up with a famous artifact of singular phone toughness when it is returned. There are already calls on social media for Apple to acquire the device and put it on display. At the very least, it provides a real world demonstration that the smartphones we carry daily have come a long way from their fragile origins.
So while aviation analysts dissect the complex chain of equipment failures and procedures that ended with a plane’s door blown off at 37,000 feet, the rest of us can marvel at the simple durability of modern technology. Few expected a slim phone to emerge intact after such a ride. But as our daily companion devices become ever more resilient, today’s iPhone is built to survive adventures that no engineer imagined. Even, as we now know, the most unlikely falls.