The Twilight Zone: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”

Listen to the podcast here:

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – Aired October 1963
(William Shatner version)

This episode would not be as striking if Bob Wilson had not just had a nervous breakdown. The atmosphere or mood is very intimate – the plane feels like a microcosm of mental illness in society. We have people, all in the same place, doing the same thing, receiving the same stimuli, but one person is having a vastly different experience from the others. The other passengers are calmly sitting, biding their time for the duration of the flight. Meanwhile, Bob sees a threat that no one else does, one that’s trying to dismantle this container that’s keeping him safe while he’s hurtling through the air.

Could a mammal survive flight on a wing?

It’s going to be very, very cold. Cases reported of people being outside the cabin area of a plane (ie – in the wing storage, on the wing, hanging out of a door, in the landing gear) well below cruising altitude (this is a critical point), consistently report frostbite as a consequence. Also, incidents where the person survived reported a short time of exposure.

So what would happen if you tried to hitch a ride on the wing of a plane because you really miss your family that lives far away but you can’t afford the exorbitant airfare? (not specific to a 1963 aircraft)

There’s hardly any air

At 35,000 feet, you only have about one quarter of the air that’s available to your poor lungs at sea level, which is a more reasonable altitude for humans.

Your lungs would explode

because the atmospheric pressure would cause the air (a gas) inside the lungs to expand inside them very quickly and forcefully.

You would freeze

The temperature at 30-40,000 feet could hit 48 degrees below (in Fahrenheit; 44 below in Celsius) or lower. That’s taking into account altitude; let’s go further and factor in velocity as well. With the wind chill traveling at around 550 mph and cruising 30-35,000 feet, you would experience 182 below (in Farenheit). That’s 119 below in Celsius.

You would be ripped off the plane and go tumbling toward the surface of the Earth and certain death.

I didn’t actually find this stated explicitly anywhere, but I extrapolated from an XKCD article in which the author states that humans can survive 500 mph winds, but winds at those speeds are strong enough to peel pavement back from the road and that volcanic eruptions can blast outward around 700 mph, which doesn’t seem terribly different from 500 mph, considering a 120 mph updraft can lift you up and carry you away.

I know I said I wasn’t using information specific to planes available in 1963, but just to highlight the difference, a DC-7, built from 1953 to 1958, had a cruise speed of around 350 mph or 563 km/h, while a Boeing 747 (in production seince 1963) has a cruise speed of around 560 mph, or 900 km/h.
On a slightly unrelated note, I found a news story about some local kids who took to the trees during a tornado and held on until their grandparents found them, and then they were able to wait it out in the car. To be fair, this was an EF-2 tornado, so wind speeds were between 111 and 135 miles per hour, or 178 to 217 km/h, which is significant. Trees can be uprooted, small debris can be weaponized, train boxcars may overturn, roofs may abandon their frames, so it’s no joke.

I don’t remember hearing about this, but it was in January of this year, in Barnwell State Park, which is in Barnwell County, South Carolina.

Under what conditions could you survive?

In a spacesuit

<Baseless speculation>

How WOULD one stay on the wing of a plane, given that he or she had figured out how to stay alive (likely in a spacesuit)?

Sher’s idea – perhaps some very strong magnets, but I doubt you’d be able to move about freely like the gremlin does. I can imagine if you just have magnetic boots and are standing, your body would be thrown backward from the force of the wind, and with your feet anchored, you’d probably break your spine, and other things. I think duct tape might work. I know these winds can peel pavement from the ground, but watching MacGyver as a kid has given me and unrealistic and largely untested faith in duct tape.

Actual occurrences of creatures on wings
A python was found to have attached itself to the wing of plane that flew from northern Australia to Papua New Guinea and reached an altitude 30,000 feet. Sadly, this brave little reptile did not survive.

What happens if screws come loose on your plane
A passenger on an Air Canada flight took a photo of a screw THAT HAD COME LOOSE FROM THE PROPELLER AND EMBEDDED ITSELF IN HIS WINDOW. Luckily nothing bad happened and the plane landed without further incident. But then I went down a scary rabbit hole and read an article about a PROPELLOR BREAKING OFF AND CRASHING THROUGH THE CABIN. Apparently, there was an issue right after take off – passengers heard a loud boom, and the plane made an emergency landing at an airport not far away. The landing gear collapsed (not sure if this part was confirmed), but some passengers reported smelling burning flammable type liquids and seeing sparks. The plane was skidding across the tarmac with a sound like shredding metal, and the propellor “snapped off…and hurtled through the cabin wall,” hitting a woman in the head. Additionally, fiberglass and other materials from the inside of the cabin embedded in her skin. I decided to stop reading about terrifying plane mishaps at this point, and instead focus on the question begging to be ask. When are screws used in a plane versus rivets, versus welding?

Are planes riveted or screwed or welded?

I didn’t know how to even Google this, so I reached out to Nikki’s friend Robin. You remember Robin, he’s the one who callously immolated Pocket Sher in California. Robin is an airplane mechanic, so he should know about this.

It was fun asking him this question and then seeing the little “typing” dots bounce and then stop for a while, and then bounce for a while and then stop, and so on and so on.

<any errors are entirely my fault, not Robin’s>

Robin says that it varies a great deal, but the underlying principle of flying machines is efficiency, so you want to save weight where you can do so safely. However, given that, the screws on the wing of a plane generally secure access panels for maintenance and such. The wings of the plane are securely bolted and riveted to the fuselage, and are under a great deal of torque. Torque is rotational force, and from what little I understand, functions within a delicate balance of aerodynamic forces to make flight possible. So it’s extremely unlikely that the gremlin could a) stay on the wing, and b) detach the engine or the wing itself. But if he could, he would disrupt those delicate balances and make a safe landing much more difficult.

The Gremlin

This thing is ridiculous – the internet calls him an oversized teddy bear, but when I first saw it many years ago, I thought it kind of looked like the missing link, back when we thought there was still a missing link. It’s neanderthal-ish and ape-ish all at the same time.

There’s a wiki fandom called Villains Wikia that compares the gremlin from the 1963 episode to the one in the 1983 movie, starring John Lithgow and Dan Akroyd. The movie gremlin has more monster-y properties. I can’t bring myself to say scary, because it’s still ridiculous. Villians Wikia notes that the original gremlin seems more curious than nefarious. The movie gremlin seems like a condescending douche, to be honest. And bites a gun in half. The tv gremlin almost seems like he’s exploring the plane the way a child takes apart a toy they love. And then Bob shoots him.

Which brings me to my next point. Can you even open an airplane door during flight?

According to a article, no, at least not on modern planes. At cruising altitude, there are three to four tons of force pushing on the plane. So you would have to pull with slightly more than equal force to open the escape hatch, which opens inward. The doors, which open outward, are designed so that when they are closed, they fit onto a frame that has to be pulled inward to open, so same deal.

But what about a plane in use in 1963? According to IMDB, the plane is actually an accidental amalgam of a Convair 240/340/440 and a DC-6 or DC-7. In the same Slate article, it states that the locking mechanisms in the DC-10 eventually stopped carrying passengers and switched over to freight after a locking mechanism failure on a cargo door caused a horrific crash. Since the DC-10 comes after the DC-7, it stands to reason that Bob Wilson actually may have been able to open the airplane door. Someone else can ask Robin if it’s possible, and then we’ll know for sure.

Favorite Quote: “There’s … a man … out there!” – Bob Wilson

What did YOU think of the topics we discussed? We’d love to hear from you!

Leave a Reply