How to Fall 35,000 Feet—And Survive

You’re six miles up, alone and falling without a parachute. Though the odds are long, a small number of people have found themselves in similar situations—and lived to tell the tale. Here’s PM’s 120-mph, 35,000-ft, 3-minutes-to-impact survival guide.

By Dan Koeppel

6:59:00 AM
35,000 Feet
You have a late night and an early flight. Not long after takeoff, you drift to sleep. Suddenly, you’re wide awake. There’s cold air rushing everywhere, and sound. Intense, horrible sound. Where am I?, you think. Where’s the plane?

You’re 6 miles up. You’re alone. You’re falling.

Things are bad. But now’s the time to focus on the good news. (Yes, it goes beyond surviving the destruction of your aircraft.) Although gravity is against you, another force is working in your favor: time. Believe it or not, you’re better off up here than if you’d slipped from the balcony of your high-rise hotel room after one too many drinks last night.

Or at least you will be. Oxygen is scarce at these heights. By now, hypoxia is starting to set in. You’ll be unconscious soon, and you’ll cannonball at least a mile before waking up again. When that happens, remember what you are about to read. The ground, after all, is your next destination.

Granted, the odds of surviving a 6-mile plummet are extra­ordinarily slim, but at this point you’ve got nothing to lose by understanding your situation. There are two ways to fall out of a plane. The first is to free-fall, or drop from the sky with absolutely no protection or means of slowing your descent. The second is to become a wreckage rider, a term coined by Massachusetts-based amateur historian Jim Hamilton, who developed the Free Fall Research Page—an online database of nearly every imaginable human plummet. That classification means you have the advantage of being attached to a chunk of the plane. In 1972, Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulovic was traveling in a DC-9 over Czechoslovakia when it blew up. She fell 33,000 feet, wedged between her seat, a catering trolley, a section of aircraft and the body of another crew member, landing on—then sliding down—a snowy incline before coming to a stop, severely injured but alive.

Surviving a plunge surrounded by a semiprotective cocoon of debris is more common than surviving a pure free-fall, according to Hamilton’s statistics; 31 such confirmed or “plausible” incidents have occurred since the 1940s. Free-fallers constitute a much more exclusive club, with just 13 confirmed or plausible incidents, including perennial Ripley’s Believe It or Not superstar Alan Magee—blown from his B-17 on a 1943 mission over France. The New Jersey airman, more recently the subject of a MythBusters episode, fell 20,000 feet and crashed into a train station; he was subsequently captured by German troops, who were astonished at his survival.

Whether you’re attached to crumpled fuselage or just plain falling, the concept you’ll be most interested in is terminal velocity. As gravity pulls you toward earth, you go faster. But like any moving object, you create drag—more as your speed increases. When downward force equals upward resistance, acceleration stops. You max out.

Depending on your size and weight, and factors such as air density, your speed at that moment will be about 120 mph—and you’ll get there after a surprisingly brief bit of falling: just 1500 feet, about the same height as Chicago’s Sears (now Willis) Tower. Equal speed means you hit the ground with equal force. The difference is the clock. Body meets Windy City sidewalk in 12 seconds. From an airplane’s cruising altitude, you’ll have almost enough time to read this entire article.

7:00:20 AM
22,000 Feet
By now, you’ve descended into breathable air. You sputter into consciousness. At this altitude, you’ve got roughly 2 minutes until impact. Your plan is simple. You will enter a Zen state and decide to live. You will understand, as Hamilton notes, “that it isn’t the fall that kills you—it’s the landing.”

Keeping your wits about you, you take aim.

But at what? Magee’s landing on the stone floor of that French train station was softened by the skylight he crashed through a moment earlier. Glass hurts, but it gives. So does grass. Haystacks and bushes have cushioned surprised-to-be-alive free-fallers. Trees aren’t bad, though they tend to skewer. Snow? Absolutely. Swamps? With their mucky, plant-covered surface, even more awesome. Hamilton documents one case of a sky diver who, upon total parachute failure, was saved by bouncing off high-tension wires. Contrary to popular belief, water is an awful choice. Like concrete, liquid doesn’t compress. Hitting the ocean is essentially the same as colliding with a sidewalk, Hamilton explains, except that pavement (perhaps unfortunately) won’t “open up and swallow your shattered body.”

With a target in mind, the next consideration is body position. To slow your descent, emulate a sky diver. Spread your arms and legs, present your chest to the ground, and arch your back and head upward. This adds friction and helps you maneuver. But don’t relax. This is not your landing pose.

The question of how to achieve ground contact remains, regrettably, given your predicament, a subject of debate. A 1942 study in the journal War Medicine noted “distribution and compensation of pressure play large parts in the defeat of injury.” Recommendation: wide-body impact. But a 1963 report by the Federal Aviation Agency argued that shifting into the classic sky diver’s landing stance—feet together, heels up, flexed knees and hips—best increases survivability. The same study noted that training in wrestling and acrobatics would help people survive falls. Martial arts were deemed especially useful for hard-surface impacts: “A ‘black belt’ expert can reportedly crack solid wood with a single blow,” the authors wrote, speculating that such skills might be transferable.

The ultimate learn-by-doing experience might be a lesson from Japanese parachutist Yasuhiro Kubo, who holds the world record in the activity’s banzai category. The sky diver tosses his chute from the plane and then jumps out after it, waiting as long as possible to retrieve it, put it on and pull the ripcord. In 2000, Kubo—starting from 9842 feet—fell for 50 seconds before recovering his gear. A safer way to practice your technique would be at one of the wind-tunnel simulators found at about a dozen U.S. theme parks and malls. But neither will help with the toughest part: sticking the landing. For that you might consider—though it’s not exactly advisable—a leap off the world’s highest bridge, France’s Millau Viaduct; its platform towers 891 feet over mostly spongy farmland.

Water landings—if you must—require quick decision-making. Studies of bridge-jump survivors indicate that a feet-first, knife-like entry (aka “the pencil”) best optimizes your odds of resurfacing. The famed cliff divers of Acapulco, however, tend to assume a head-down position, with the fingers of each hand locked together, arms outstretched, protecting the head. Whichever you choose, first assume the free-fall position for as long as you can. Then, if a feet-first entry is inevitable, the most important piece of advice, for reasons both unmentionable and easily understood, is to clench your butt.

No matter the surface, definitely don’t land on your head. In a 1977 “Study of Impact Tolerance Through Free-Fall Investigations,” researchers at the Highway Safety Research Institute found that the major cause of death in falls—they examined drops from buildings, bridges and the occasional elevator shaft (oops!)—was cranial contact. If you have to arrive top-down, sacrifice your good looks and land on your face, rather than the back or top of your head. You might also consider flying with a pair of goggles in your pocket, Hamilton says, since you’re likely to get watery eyes—impairing accuracy—on the way down.

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