We all know the feeling of ears popping and stomachs dropping on airplanes. And it's no wonder that kids are curious about why it happens. Thanks to a helpful Indianapolis pilot and the University of Michigan, we have an answer for you!
So, why do your ears pop and why does your stomach drop when you're on an airplane?
Your ears pop in airplanes because the air high above the surface of Earth is less dense than air near the surface, because air near the surface has all the air above it pushing down. Your inner ear has air trapped in it and as the atmospheric pressure changes, it causes pressure on your ear drum. As you ascend in an airplane and the air pressure decreases, the air trapped in your inner ear will cause your eardrums to push outward. This expansion causes not only the discomfort you feel before your ears "pop," but also a decrease in hearing ability, because the pressure on your ears drums makes the sound harder to transmit.
Your body can equalize the pressure between your inner ear and the atmosphere by allowing some air from your inner ear to escape through the Eustachian tubes, two small channels that connect the inner ears to the throat, one on each side. When they open, you feel the pressure release and you hear the change because it's happening in your ear. This equalization of pressure is the "pop." If you are congested, the tubes can be blocked making it more difficult for the pressure to equalize.
Your stomach reacts to changes in g-forces. Before you take off, you are experiencing 1 g, which is 1 times the force of gravity. That's what you feel all the time. As you accelerate and climb, the g force increases. Once you level off and reach a constant speed, you are back to 1 g. When you begin a descent, you feel slightly less than 1 g. That is the slight floating feeling. It's more pronounced if the descent is entered more rapidly. NASA uses airplanes to simulate 0 g for training astronauts by maintaining a rapid descent for a period of time.
0 g not enought for you? Learn about life in space in Beyond Spaceship Earth! Learn about famous Hoosier astronauts and see if you have what it takes to keep the space station running smoothly!