The iPhone was lying on the ground, in airplane mode, with its battery half full. The screen, fully intact, showed a US$70 (NZ112) receipt for two checked bags on Alaska Airlines flight 1282.

A social media user by the name Sean Bates found the device while walking down Barnes Road near Highway 217 in Portland, Oregon, he posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Sunday.

“Survived a 16,000 foot drop,” he tweeted. When he called the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency investigating the incident, to report the phone, he learned “it was the SECOND phone to be found,” he wrote.

When a door plug on an Alaska Airlines plane blew off minutes after takeoff on Friday evening (local time), it left a gaping, door-shaped hole in the Boeing 737 Max 9 plane. A handful of objects were sucked out of the plane that was 16,000 feet (4.9km) in the sky. The iPhone found by Bates was most likely one of them, the NTSB told media outlets.

The aircraft made an emergency landing, and while there was extensive damage to the inside of the plane, everyone on board survived.

It is unclear if the other phone, found in a yard according to the NTSB, was an iPhone. The NTSB did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

A broken-off plug was still inside the charging socket, according to a photo Bates posted, implying the phone was being charged when it was sucked out by what is being investigated as an explosive depressurisation accident.

The iPhone is known for many things – surviving a 16,000-foot fall from a plane is not one of them. Nearly anyone who’s owned a smartphone has had the experience of dropping one and cracking the screen.

And though smartphone screens have become a lot stronger over the years, this phone’s survival is most likely because of physics.

“The basic answer is air resistance,” said Duncan Watts, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo. “I think the counterintuitive thing here is that an iPhone falling from the sky doesn’t end up moving that quickly because of air resistance.”

Any object falling through toward Earth will reach a point, known as its terminal velocity, where the force of gravity can’t accelerate it anymore because of resistance from the air in the atmosphere.

“If the phone is falling with its screen facing the ground, there’s quite a lot of drag, but if the phone is falling straight up and down, there’s quite a bit less,” Watts said. “In reality, the phone would be tumbling quite a bit, and get quite a lot of wind essentially giving an upward force.”

The terminal velocity of a large screen-down iPhone, according to Watts, would be about 30 mph (48.2 kph). “The larger the iPhone, the lower the terminal velocity,” he said. “The maximum is around 100 mph (161 kph), but that would only happen if the phone’s screen was perpendicular to the ground.”

Watts said that when we drop a phone from waist-height, it hits the ground at around 10 mph, while a phone dropped from the top of an aeroplane probably only reaches 50 mph.

Watts pointed out that the phone surely would have been damaged had it landed on stone or pavement, but the grass or foliage it seems to have fallen on cushioned its fall.

“If the iPhone fell on a grassy patch, then it definitely could have survived the fall,” Watts said. “If the phone was facing straight down, it would have gone from about 30 mph to stationary on a relatively cushy surface, a little less force than if I decided to stomp on it.”

According to Apple, the company that created the iPhone, the device can be damaged if it is dropped. Apple’s user guide does not specify how high a fall the iPhone is meant to survive.

“Handle iPhone with care. It is made of metal, glass, and plastic and has sensitive electronic components inside” said the guide. “iPhone or its battery can be damaged if dropped, burned, punctured, or crushed, or if it comes in contact with liquid.”

In a TikTok video uploaded on Sunday by Bates, who did not respond to a request for comment on Monday, he said he found the phone under a bush while on a walk to look for things that might have fallen from the plane. He was “a little sceptical at first” that it belonged to an Alaska Airlines passenger.

After opening it, he found travel confirmation for the Alaska Airlines flight and that’s when he called the NTSB, he said. “It was still pretty clean,” he said. “No scratches on it.”

This is seemingly not the first time an iPhone has survived falling out of the sky. In June 2023, a TikTok user named Hatton Smith posted a video in which he said his iPhone survived after it flew out of his pocket while skydiving at 14,000 feet.

The phone landed in a grassy, muddy area, as can be seen in the video inlet within his TikTok.

In both cases, if the iPhone had landed on concrete, it would likely not have survived.

“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.”

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