AirDrop alert: iPhone survives 16,000 feet drop from a plane — here’s how it survived

A blue iPhone 13 held in front of green foliage
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

An iPhone survived the ultimate drop test after apparently falling 16,000 feet from the cabin of Alaska Airlines flight 1282 when the passenger plane’s door panel blew out in midair during a flight last Friday (January 5).

A Portland, Oregon, area resident named Sean Bates shared images of the device on X (formerly known as Twitter) over the weekend, which he said he spotted on the side of the road while on a walk. The National Transportation Safety Board issued an alert to nearby residents to report anything that looked like it fell from the Alaska Airlines flight that required an emergency landing in Portland. 

Incredibly, not only was the phone still functioning despite plunging more than 3 miles to the ground, but it was still “in airplane mode with half a battery and open to a baggage claim” for the Alaska Airlines flight, according to Bates. Even more mindblowing, it looks like it survived the crash landing without a single scratch on the display. 

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Bates said when he called in the discovery, the NTSB said "it was the second phone to be found." When reached for comment about Bates' discovery, an NTSB spokesperson confirmed to the Guardian that the phone is believed to be from the flight: 

“That was one of the phones collected that is likely from the flight. It has since been turned over to Alaska Airlines.”

@seansafyre

♬ original sound - Sean Bates

As for the exact iPhone model, that's yet to be disclosed. But we can speculate based on the presence of a notch in the pictures Bates shared.  Apple has used the notch since the iPhone X to house the front-facing camera and necessary sensors for features such as Face ID unlock before ditching it in favor of a dynamic island starting with the iPhone 14 Pro. So it's likely a model made somewhere between 2017 and 2022. We'd guess an iPhone 13 or later given the size of the notch, as Apple reduced that cutout starting with its 2021 phones.

This photo released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows a gaping hole where the paneled-over door had been on an Alaska Airlines Flight in Portland, Oregon.

(Image credit: NTSB via AP)

On Friday, an Alaska Airlines flight traveling from Portland, Oregon, to Ontario, California, was forced to make an emergency landing after a section of the Boeing 737 Max 9’s fuselage blew out midair roughly 20 minutes into the flight. The incident created a vacuum that bent the metal of the seats nearby and snatched cellphones, headsets, and even the shirt off one passenger's back. 

The plane was brand new having been delivered to Alaska Airlines in October, at which time it was judged by the Federal Aviation Administration to be airworthy.

How did an iPhone survive a 3-mile plunge? 

This isn't the first time we've seen the best iPhones survive extreme conditions. In 2021, an iPhone was found at the bottom of a lake in British Columbia after being submerged for six months. While the microphone and speaker were damaged, remarkably the iPhone emerged largely unscathed from its extended stay with the fishes.

As for how this iPhone could have possibly withstood the plunge, "the basic answer is air resistance," according to researcher Duncan Watts of the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo (via a Washington Post report). He explained that, after a period of falling, the iPhone reached terminal velocity, which means that acceleration is now zero due to the effects of air resistance. For an iPhone, terminal velocity is about 30 mph if it’s falling face-down, or around 100 mph if it falls perpendicular to the ground. 

Granted, colliding with a concrete road at the end of its fall would certainly have done a fair amount of damage. But this iPhone seems to have had luck on its side. Bates said he found it on the side of the road, where grass may have cushioned its landing. 

"If it fell on some damp ground, I could see it having about an inch of cushion,” Watts said. “That’s maybe what plopping down on a chair would feel like.”

There you have it. Surviving a crash landing from 16,000 feet may sound improbable at first, but it's not outside the realm of possibilities for an iPhone. That being said, please don't try this at home, as chucking your own iPhone out of a plane is never a good idea. 

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Alyse Stanley
News Editor

Alyse Stanley is a news editor at Tom’s Guide overseeing weekend coverage and writing about the latest in tech, gaming and entertainment.

Prior to joining Tom’s Guide, Alyse worked as an editor for the Washington Post’s sunsetted video game section, Launcher. She previously led Gizmodo’s weekend news desk, where she covered breaking tech news — everything from the latest spec rumors and gadget launches to social media policy and cybersecurity threats.  She has also written game reviews and features as a freelance reporter for outlets like Polygon, Unwinnable, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. She’s a big fan of horror movies, cartoons, and miniature painting.