Ryanair Jet Did Not “Plunge” 26,000 Feet

I swear, I’m going to have to change the name of this blog to Cranky Mythbusters, because there is just so much ridiculous stuff flying around the media right now. Once again, it’s my favorite whipping boy, the AP. This time, the title of the report is “Mid-air panic as plane plunges 26,000 feet.” Will someone please put a muzzle on these guys?

The story is this. Ryanair Flight Plunging (Not Really)A Ryanair flight was traveling from Bristol in the UK to Girona (outside Barcelona). It lost pressure at altitude and quickly descended in order to get to an altitude with breathable air, 8,000 feet. Then the plane diverted to Limoges, the nearest airport.

The AP article would make you believe that the plane plunged 26,000 feet as a result of the depressurization, but that’s absolutely ridiculous. The plane quickly descended because that’s how pilots are supposed to respond when the plane depressurizes.

See, those oxygen masks are attached to tanks that don’t have a ton of oxygen in them. They’re basically there to tide you over for a few minutes until you can get down to a level where you can breathe on your own. So as soon as a plane loses pressure, the pilots purposefully go into a steep descent to make sure that you don’t run out of oxygen. (The pilots, by the way, have more oxygen available for themselves.)

So the AP goes out there and hears the cries of terror from passengers and decides to pounce on it. The passengers were freaking out because, well, they were descending very quickly, and the pilots didn’t come on right away to say anything. You know why? The pilots were too busy actually trying to keep them from running out of air! Once the plane was stabilized at a lower altitude, they were able to come on and talk about what was happening, but priority number one is to get everyone to safety. Then they talk to the passengers.

If you’d like to learn more, I recommend going to this highly respectable report from the BBC that describes aircraft depressurization in much more detail. Kudos to them for actually reporting correctly on this. As for the AP, just ignore them.

22 Responses to Ryanair Jet Did Not “Plunge” 26,000 Feet

  1. Kevo says:

    I had the same reaction of disgust when I saw this headline a few days ago.

  2. Sue says:

    Man, anything to get attention. Honestly, any more, whenever I read something like that stupid headline, I ALWAYS take it with a grain of salt and wait for the follow-ups from SANE sources–like you. My faith in American mass media is gone. Bunch of gossipy old pie holes with no actual constructive purpose in life.

  3. Bobber says:

    Cranky,

    A bad day all round for Ryanair who also had to divert a flight due to a leak of potentially lethal mushroom soup from an overhead cabin (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7585234.stm).

  4. james says:

    CF I saw that exact same headline and had the same thought: ARRRG. A steep and controlled descent is what’s SUPPOSED to happen. I posted a shorter yet similar rant:

    http://www.futuregringo.com/index.php/2008/08/26/hardly-life-or-death/

    The most ridulous line: quote: “The French officials said the plane lost 26,200 feet of altitude in five minutes before the landing, which the pilot requested.”

    No shit. 36,000 feet minus 26,000 equals 10,000 feet – a perfect operating altitude in which to remove your mask and execute a safe approach and landing. While the plane was descending 5,200 feet per minute, (in these five minutes,) its certainly not a death spiral into the ground.

    The Times UK had a similar fearmongering take on it… Their video has passengers spouting off nonsense like “There was no turbulence, so its surprising this happened” WTF?

    It drives me nuts, especially when the pilots seemed to have a no-nonsense professional job reacting to the incident. I don’t see many kudos to them…

    Thanks for posting this.

  5. CF says:

    Thanks for posting, James. I like that quote about the French officials, but I wondered if they meant the pilots requested the steep descent or whether they requested the landing!

  6. Nick says:

    Three cheers for the BBC which seems to stand alone out there in a sea of ‘bull-#### headlines’. My take is the general papers pander to a certain section of the public (being PC here) with their sweeping overblown, shock, horror, statements, whilst at the same time distorting the real news which is just not exciting or depressing enough for some!

  7. CS says:

    One thing I have always wondered about depressurization situations is how you can tell (short of passing out/not passing out) if your mask actually is receiving oxygen. Overwhelming odds are that it will be, but it seems like people would be reassured if there were something letting them know.

  8. Chris says:

    That first article was rather good at explaining what happened but the bbc also has a radio broadcast on their site where the reporter lambastes the head of Ryan air for handling the situation badly because they felt that this polar explorer somehow knew something about surviving a depressurization situation. In the final min of the interviews Michael O’Leary (ryan air boss) shuts up the reporter and says ‘we cant be making announcements to the cabin while our pilots are wearing oxygen masks so they don’t pass out.’

    Here’s the link http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_7581000/7581641.stm

  9. CF says:

    CS – Apparently most people think they aren’t getting any oxygen (because remember, the bag doesn’t inflate), but they usually are. If these guys were above a breathable altitude for 5 minutes, they would have passed out. So, I have to assume they worked despite the cries of passengers.

  10. Paul Campy says:

    The priorities are aviate, navigate, communicate – as any budding or wannabe pilot will know. It’s a shame these things are reported based on the views of the person who wants to talk to the media the most.

  11. Benji says:

    Well, besides the fact that the article starts with “plunged,” but later explains the 26k feet was over the course of 5-8 minutes… which is basically just a continued steep descent rather than several thousand foot drop.

    … that said, I’m glad I wasn’t on that plane!

  12. The same terrible reporting seems to happen with every incident. The recent Qantas incident near Manila had similar tales of a “death plunge” in the media.

  13. Yo says:

    Is it true, that after the landing, the flight attendants then went and collected 5 Euro from each passenger who used the oxygen masks?

  14. Dan Webb says:

    No cranky jackass for this one? Aww. :(

  15. Brian Lusk says:

    The Cranky Mythbuster–I like the sound of that. If we can fire guns, blow things up, and drop things off buildings, would you keep me in mind as an assistant?

  16. Thomas says:

    Not surprising. The objective of newspapers is to sell newspapers, not to report the news.

    How many ‘papers do you think they are going to sell with headlines like: “Everybody calm as airliner descends to safe altitude”.

    This morning I saw a report of the Qantas ‘challenge’ with their Oxygen bottle. Apparently when it ‘exploded’ it blew a ‘car-sized’ hole in the fuselage.

  17. Axel says:

    I agree whith dan

  18. CF says:

    Dan/Axel – Well, they got a Cranky Jackass last time, so I thought I’d just let it slide. Next time . . .

    Brian – Hmm, can we borrow one of your planes to “plunge” 26,000 feet and test this thing out?!?

  19. Brian Lusk says:

    ummm maybe we better go to Plan B

  20. MarkT says:

    > those oxygen masks are attached to tanks

    In the cabin, pulling the mask towards you pulls out a firing pin that sets off a percussion cap that starts a chlorate core burning at 400 degrees F and that produces oxygen.

    The pilots have tanks of oxygen though.

  21. Jason says:

    MarkT wrote:

    “In the cabin, pulling the mask towards you pulls out a firing pin that sets off a percussion cap that starts a chlorate core burning at 400 degrees F and that produces oxygen.

    The pilots have tanks of oxygen though.”

    This is true. Some MX friends of mine tell me this process creates funny smelling O2. You may also remember that it was pax O2 generators improperly stored in the fwd cargo compartment on that Value Jet that caused a fire and resulted in a crash in the everglades.

    As for the flightdeck’s tanked oxygen, taking a few hits of it helps with a hangover. Or so I’ve been told.

  22. Similar AP distortions followed the recent Qantas mishap, as well as an Air Dolimiti incident.

    Here is a column I wrote on the Qantas affair….
    http://www.salon.com/tech/col/smith/2008/08/01/285/

    Patrick Smith

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