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What is a Bulkhead?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 24, 2024
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A bulkhead is a wall inside a craft such as a ship, airplane, or spacecraft. Bulkheads serve a number of structural functions, and there are a wide array of variations on the basic bulkhead design which can be used in specific applications. The term “bulkhead” may also be used to describe a retaining wall in a mine or along a seashore used for control of flood and erosion.

The Chinese appear to have been the first to use bulkheads in their ships. When mariners from other regions encountered Chinese ships, they took note of the bulkhead design and adopted it for themselves, causing it to spread rapidly across many shipbuilding cultures. Prior to the use of bulkheads, the entire hull of a ship would be open, creating a cavernous space.

One of the most obvious reasons to install bulkheads is to divide a space into usable compartments. Using bulkheads inside a ship, for example, breaks the space up, which makes it easier to store cargo and to establish accommodations for people on board the boat. Historically, the use of bulkheads radically changed shipping, because it allowed companies to sequester various products and to organize their loads without needing to worry about shifting weight, since the bulkheads held materials in place.

Bulkheads also contribute to the structural stability and rigidity of a craft. In heavy seas, a ship with bulkheads will usually withstand the conditions better than a ship which lacks these internal walls, and the same holds true for aircraft, which must endure violent shearing forces on a regular basis. Engineers have refined bulkhead designs to provide maximum structural stability while adding minimal amounts of weight to ensure that craft are still capable of moving.

The final and perhaps most important reason to install a bulkhead is for safety. The compartmentalized design created with bulkheads allows people to contain fire, flooding, and other issues so that an entire craft is not ruined when accidents or sabotage occur. Requiring bulkheads for safety reasons is common in many areas of the world, and this concern also dictates the materials used in their construction, and the fittings which may be attached to them.

Incidentally, in situations where people are allowed to pick their seats on an aircraft, bulkhead seats are typically the best choice, because they have more leg room. Emergency exit rows can also be a good choice, as they also have additional legroom, but certain responsibilities are attached to the people who sit in these seats if an emergency evacuation occurs.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By burcinc — On Feb 01, 2013

@SarahGen-- I think the bulkheads have more space because this is where passengers with babies usually sit. Airlines have attachable baby cribs that can be placed on the bulkhead.

By SarahGen — On Jan 31, 2013

I love sitting behind the bulkhead as an economy passenger in the plane. I happened to get a seat there twice in the past and I was so pleased with the extra leg room.

It was at the very beginning of economy class, the front seats after the bulkhead dividing business and economy class. It has unbelievable foot room! I'm going to try to get a seat there for my future flights as well.

I do find it odd that there is even a bulkhead between different class passengers on aircraft. I mean, at the end of the day, we're in the same plane with the same destination. But I can't deny that the seats behind the bulkhead are the most comfortable economy seats available.

By bluedolphin — On Jan 31, 2013

I remember from the movie Titanic, there were many bulkheads inside the ship. When the ship hit the glacier and started flooding, they locked down some of the flooded compartments to prevent the rest from flooding as well. Technically, it might have prevented Titanic from sinking but too many of the compartments had flooded by that time. So it pulled the entire ship down.

But I can see how building bulkheads is an important security issue for ships.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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