Why an iPhone survived a plane crash if it cracked falling down the stairs | Technology

Barely 10 minutes had passed since Alaska Airlines Flight 1282 took off from Portland Airport, when its passengers were horrified to find that a section of the fuselage was ejected, causing the cabin to depressurize. The masks were removed automatically and the plane began a return to the runway, declaring an emergency, with the hole in the fuselage. In this nightmare that could have ended in tragedy, an iPhone will make headlines in the following days: it will survive the plane crash intact.

Sean Bates, a citizen of a town near Portland, was walking through his neighborhood when his eyes fell on a cell phone in a garden next to the road. He went there and found an iPhone, in airplane mode, but showing the boarding pass for the Alaska Airlines flight. Moments later, he heard about the theft in the media and contacted authorities. As shown on their social networks Bates, the iPhone was in mint condition, with a few scratches. He had fallen from an altitude of 4.8 kilometers.

Concretely, it was an iPhone 14 Pro, equipped with a case and a screen protector: two important details in the outcome of the incident. Authorities contacted the airline, which quickly located the passenger who could not find his cell phone among his belongings. The terminal was returned fully operational and with only a few scratches to its owner, while the shocking event took center stage in the media. How can a cell phone dropped from a plane in mid-flight survive unscathed?


Was it a miracle it didn’t break? Not that much. “Three elements intervened to keep the phone intact,” Luis Ángel Tejedor, professor of electronic communications engineering at Complutense University, explains to EL PAÍS. “Newton’s second law, the impact surface and the design of the device,” he lists. According to this physics expert, in theory, it doesn’t matter whether the iPhone fell from a plane 5 kilometers away or from a fourth floor: “The longer the phone is subjected to the force of gravity, the greater the acceleration of the gravity acts for a long time. “9.8 m/s² and it reaches a higher speed,” he explains. So, if the cell phone falls from a plane, it will reach the ground faster than if it fell from the fifth floor.

But Tejedor refers to a second force that intervenes and slows down the speed of impact: the force of friction. “The faster the phone falls, the greater the force of friction until there comes a point where the force of friction is equal to that of gravity and the object is no longer accelerating; This speed is called the speed limit,” he explains. This way, once the height of the object’s fall is sufficient to reach the speed limit, the height no longer matters, because the object is no longer accelerating. So in reality, it doesn’t matter whether the phone falls from a building or a plane.

Added to this law is the mass and surface area of ​​the object: “In an object with a lot of surface area and little mass, like a ball or a feather, the force of gravity is weak and friction easily equalizes it to speeds which are not very high. » . At the opposite extreme, we would find an object with a lot of mass and little surface area, like a ball. The iPhone, flat and light – especially in its latest versions – “glides” more easily, reaching a relatively low maximum speed.

Lucky landing

But the laws of physics alone would not be enough to explain what is inexplicable to mortal reasoning: a few scratches on a cell phone dropped from a height of 5 kilometers. This iPhone was lucky, or rather its owner was extremely lucky: the device fell in a garden right next to a road. The herb minimized the consequences. Beyond common sense, science comes into play again, this time with kinetic energy, as Professor Complutense explains: “This energy, at the moment of impact, must be dissipated in some way or of another. If the phone falls on grass, it will be dedicated to moving soft grass, but if it falls on cement or asphalt, which are rigid, the energy will be devoted to deforming the different parts of the mobile , destroying it.

In this sense, mobile manufacturers are approaching the thorny question of impacts in two ways. On the one hand, they can completely dismantle the cell phone: who does not remember that the first Nokias blew into a thousand pieces, but without suffering a single damage. On the other hand, they can focus on durability and resistance, as is the case with the model in question. “The iPhone 14 Pro, a particularly resistant model in terms of drops, has a steel space frame,” explains José Hernández, of the mobile repair center, Europe3G.

Hernández emphasizes another element, in addition to luck, science and the quality of the materials: the additional protection it had: “As the images show, the device had a protective case and a Tempered glass screen protector, which reinforces even more. all the durable construction it has within itself. On this aspect, Tejedor agrees, who, beyond the current resistance of high-end cell phones, assures: “I would bring a case on that.”

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