Police detained a 33-year-old man suspected of throwing open the door, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported. Police said the man confessed to opening the door, but would not say why he did it.
South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said in a statement that anyone who violates the Aviation Safety Act – actions that include passengers operating doors, exits or equipment inside an aircraft – could be prosecuted and sentenced to up to 10 years prison.
“I thought the plane was going to explode. … It looked like passengers next to the open door fainted,” one passenger told Yonhap.
In a video that appeared to have been recorded by a passenger and shared widely on social media and distributed by Reuters, wind whips the plane’s cabin, battering passengers and sending unsecured fabric flapping.
Nick Wilson, an associate professor of aeronautics at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, explained that an airplane’s exits are designed to stay in place while resisting significant pressure loads. “They’re basically stuck in there,” he said.
Along with other aircraft systems, the sealed doors and emergency exits keep the cabin pressurized at altitude. Without cabin pressure, passengers may not get enough oxygen and may lose consciousness. In the case of a rapid high-altitude decompression, he said, “you’re going to have some impairment in your ability to make coherent, useful choices.”
At lower altitudes, the pressure drops between the inside and outside of the aircraft. At this point in the flight, the force on the door is not that strong.
“This individual appears to have been able to open a door upon entry,” Wilson said. “At a lower altitude, there is less differential pressure. That would be one of the important factors that made it possible to open this door at all.”
The flight crew tried but failed to stop the man, Yonhap reported. “The flight attendants were shouting for help from male passengers and people around were clinging to him and pulling him in,” a witness told the news agency.
The plane was carrying 200 people, including 194 passengers, South Korean outlets reported.
The airline’s office at Daegu International could not immediately be reached for comment.