The purpose of this study was noninvasive assessment of respiratory compliance and resistance in mechanically ventilated patients with acute respiratory failure (ARF). To this end, flow, change in lung volume, and airway pressure were measured at the proximal tip of the endotracheal tubes in twenty nine critically ill unselected patients. Eleven had acute exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), 8 had adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and 10 had ARF of various etiologies. Static compliance (Cst,rs), 'intrinsic' PEEP (PEEPi), as well as minimum and maximum resistance (Rrs,min and Rrs,max, respectively) were obtained with end-inspiratory and end-expiratory airway occlusions. We found that: (1) PEEPi was present in all patients with COPD (up to 11.4 cmH2O) and it was not uncommon in patients with ARF without history of chronic airway disease (up to 4.1 cmH2O). (2) Without correction for PEEPi average Cst,rs was not significantly different between ARDS and COPD patients, whereas the average corrected compliance was significantly lower in ARDS patients. (3) Substantial frequency-dependence of resistance was exhibited not only by COPD patients, but also by ARDS patients.