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Alaska Airlines Flight 1282: How could iPhones survive a 16,000-foot drop?
January 25, 2024

Alaska Airlines Flight 1282: How could iPhones survive a 16,000-foot drop?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

It is not common for airplanes to lose a door midair and yet land safely. That’s what happened to Alaska Airlines 1282, which landed in Portland, Oregon. But wonders never cease.

In a viral post, X user Seanathan Bates documented how he had found an iPhone on the side of the road that came from an Alaska Airlines passenger and had seemingly survived the 16,000-foot drop ‘perfectly intact.’

As Bates later added, there’s some nuance to how intact the device may have been, but ‘the screen didn’t have any damage.’

How is it possible that a smartphone could survive such a massive fall, when there are people walking around with shattered screens from much smaller incidents? ‘Many readers reacted to Bates’s post by quipping that their phones had broken after falls of only a few feet,’ the Guardian observed.

But while many of us are flabbergasted, experts aren’t.

‘Impacts are complicated’

One of these experts is Rhett Allain, an associate professor of physics and blogger who also runs a YouTube channel, Dot Physics. Here’s the first half of his explanation:

Since iFixIt is famous for its repair guides, CEO and self-described fixer Kyle Wiens also knows a thing or two about broken devices. So not only was he not surprised that a flying iPhone made it unscathed; he also knew that this wasn’t the first time. Hence his reaction: ‘I wouldn’t say this is super far fetched!’

Wiens made the same point as Allain on impacts. ‘It looks like [the iPhone] landed on dirt instead of concrete, which I’m sure helped a lot.’ But both of them also pointed out another factor: terminal velocity.

Two forces, one phone

‘The terminal velocity of an iPhone is slower than you’d think. Air resistance limits the maximum speed, so it’s not necessarily going any faster falling from 18,000 feet than 1,000 feet,’ Wiens explained.

Allain went into a bit more detail with his physics professor hat on:

TL;DR: ‘Once the phone reaches terminal velocity, it doesn’t matter how high up it fell from.’

This takes us back to why a screen will sometimes shatter after a fall, and sometimes not. It’s the combination of terminal velocity and the surface it lands on that determines whether or not the phone will break down. Much more than height. And definitely more than whether airplane mode was on!


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