When you’re in flight, the only thing separating you from the thin air outside is an airplane window. On one side, there’s a warm, pressurized cabin where you can work, watch movies, sleep — and on the other, air that is not suitable to breathe. Between the two, incredibly sturdy windows. Aircraft cabin windows and windshields are designed to withstand high pressure environments that normal windows couldn’t function in.
A cabin window consists of three panes: an outer pane that is flush with the outside fuselage, an inner pane which has a pressurization hole in it, and a thinner, non-structural plastic pane called a scratch pane. Passengers can’t touch the inner pane or the outer pane for safety reasons; instead, passengers can rest their weary heads against the scratch pane. The scratch pane isn’t actually part of the window assembly itself but installed separately.
As your aircraft gains altitude, the pressure acting on the outside of the plane drops; the air is much less dense the higher your plane climbs. Because aircraft cabins are pressurized to about 6,000 feet for passenger comfort, there is more pressure inside the plane than acting on it from the outside. That pressure is bearing on the fuselage and the cabin windows. The little hole on the inner panel allows some of the cabin air to escape into the pocket between the inner and outer panes and equalize. This forces the outer pane to take all of the load, albeit slowly. The small hole is designed to function so that as the plane ascends the pressure slowly equalizes.
The inner and outer pane thickness is specific to each type of aircraft. Inner panes are generally thinner at approximately 0.2” thick and are only present as a fail-safe if the outer pane fails. The outer panes are thicker—at approximately 0.4” thick—and carry the pressure loads for the life of the window. The increased thickness is meant to allow for engagement with the airframe structure while maintaining the required strength. The air gap is approximately 0.25” and also varies for each aircraft.
Aircraft cabin windows are not made of glass but with a material referred to as stretched acrylic. It’s a lightweight material manufactured by a few global suppliers for the various aircraft flying today. One such supplier is UK-based GKN. The largest manufacturer of cabin windows worldwide, GKN makes cabin windows for the Boeing 737 and the Boeing 787, and most other aircraft. Stretched acrylic is produced by stretching the base material of as-cast acrylic. It provides better resistance to cracks, reduced crack propagation, and improved impact resistance.
Another type of window that exists on aircraft is the windshield/cockpit window. It consists of a toughened glass pane, a heating/deicing element, a vinyl layer, surrounded by another layer of reinforced glass. Airliners utilize acrylic as well due to its versatility. The cockpit windows are thicker and stronger as they have to withstand bird strikes—which aren't an issue on the sides of the fuselage where the cabin windows are. Jet windows are also made of stretched acrylic but are a single layer in a far more complex curved form.
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