Acute noninvasive ventilation is generally applied via face mask, with modified pressure support used as the initial mode to assist ventilation. Although an adequate seal can usually be obtained, leaks frequently develop between the mask and the patient's face. This leakage presents a theoretical problem, since the inspiratory phase of pressure support terminates when flow falls to a predetermined fraction of peak inspiratory flow. To explore the issue of mask leakage and machine performance, we used a mathematical model to investigate the dynamic behavior of pressure-supported noninvasive ventilation, and confirmed the predicted behavior through use of a test lung. Our mathematical and laboratory analyses indicate that even when subject effort is unvarying, pressure-support ventilation applied in the presence of an inspiratory leak proximal to the airway opening can be accompanied by marked variations in duration of the inspiratory phase and in autoPEEP. The unstable behavior was observed in the simplest plausible mathematical models, and occurred at impedance values and ventilator settings that are clinically realistic.