Now how

How did Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, save 13 people falling out of a plane?


Tony Stark a.k.a Iron Man


For those of you who haven’t seen Iron Man 3 yet, warning: here be spoilers. For those of you who have, you know exactly which scene I’m talking about. The villain of the movie attacks Air Force One mid-flight and kidnaps the President, blowing a hole in the cabin in the process. Thirteen people are sucked out, giving Tony Stark a chance to demonstrate his super powers.


Getting sucked out of a hole in an airplane is not uncommon in pop culture:  in the pilot episode of Lost, when doomed Oceanic Flight 815 broke in half , passengers went flying through the gaping hole in the fuselage. Even just considering movies released in the summer of 2013, this exact scenario can be seen in World War Z, After Earth, and Star Trek Into Darkness – which escalates the scenario further by having people flying out of a hole in the side of a starship while it is in warp. So let’s take a look at the mechanics of such a scenario.

Aside from the Star Trek example (which we’ll disregard since at least for the year 2013, there’s no way of determining the consequences of mid-warp starship accidents), what exactly happens when a person gets sucked out of a plane at 30,000 feet? The answer’s not as glamorous as Marvel wants us to think.


The reason why those little yellow oxygen masks pop out of the ceiling whenever there’s an in-flight emergency is because the oxygen levels at cruising altitude are extremely low – only about a quarter of that at sea level (Seeley).Within just a few seconds of being ejected from the pressurized cabin, you wouldn’t be able to breathe, and you would lose consciousness because of oxygen deprivation to the brain. This is without even considering the low temperatures at this altitude (-70°F or -57°C) made even colder by the 500 mph (805 kph) wind chill (Sohn) that would lead to freezing of the skin, eyes, and other surface tissues. Considering how Stark was able to immediately communicate with the first woman he caught, a crew member named Heather, it’s easy to see that it is merely the science of fiction that is keeping her alive.

But let’s put these qualms of survival of ejection from the plane outside for a moment and assume that all the passengers were wearing invisible oxygen masks and thick layers of wool hidden underneath their work clothes. Let’s also assume that they were able to navigate their way around the falling pieces of airplane debris, which would be traveling at a speed high enough to cause severe injury to say the least. These flying passengers also apparently have superhuman hearing, since the roar of the wind rushing by would have drowned out all sound, as well as superhuman vision since they can see each other clearly without goggles in spite of the wind whipping around their faces. So, ignoring all of this, Stark is able to get a hold of all thirteen people by having them grab onto each other and create a human chain. He tells Heather to grab the first man and promises her that she won’t be able to open her hand because he will electrify her arm. While it is true that an electrical current flowing through your hand cause your arm muscles to involuntarily seize up, making your first clench, the effects of these currents vary enormously between men and women, as well as between each individual person and can be incredibly unpredictable. Too much current would trigger cardiac arrest, burns, and organ damage. If this was actually feasible, Stark would have had to optimize and control the current through thirteen different people (Daly).

Then, considering the actual landing, Stark is correct in needing some extra altitude to decelerate before dropping off the people to safety in the water. He fires up his thrusters right above the water and abruptly pulls up the passengers, but this reversal in direction would have had such force that nearly any “chain”, people or  otherwise, would have broken on impulse.  The members of this broken chain would then have smashed against the water with such force that the impact would be similar to hitting cement (Daly).


Hey, he’s a superhero. Iron Man himself is pretty impossible so it’s only fitting that his rescue missions are, too.  The mechanics of this scenario show just how “super” his powers must be!

 Written by Constance Kaita

Works Referenced 

Daly, Steve. “The Science of Iron Man 3’s Free-Fall.” Popular Mechanics, 7 May 2013. Web. 06 June 2013.

Seeley, Jules, M.S. “What Is the Partial Pressure of Oxygen in a Commercial Airplane at 30,000 Feet?” Physics & Astronomy Online, n.d. Web. 6 June 2013. <>.

Sohn, Emily. “What Happens If You Get Sucked Out of a Plane?” Discovery News, 8 Apr. 2011. Web. 06 June 2013.


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