Peter E. asks: What could I do during freefall after falling out of a plane to maximize my chances of surviving?
According to the Aircraft Crashes Record Office in Geneva, between 1940 and 2008 there were 157 people who fell out of planes without a parachute during a crash and lived to tell about it. A full 42 of those falls occurred at heights over 10,000 feet (above 3,000 meters), such as the tale of 17 year old Juliane Koepcke who not only survived an approximately 10,000 foot free fall, but also a subsequent 10 day trek alone through the Peruvian rain forest with no real supplies other than a little bag of candy.
Now, while you might think surely nothing like that could ever happen to you, it turns out whether falling from 30,000 feet or a much more common 30, the same basic strategies apply. And for reference here, approximately 30 feet or about 9 meters is around the height at which you begin to be more likely to die from your injuries than survive. At heights as little as about 80 feet, only about 1 in 10 people survive and it pretty much all goes to hell from there.
So what can you do to increase your chances of survival if you ever find yourself doing your best impression of Icarus?
To begin with, if you find yourself plummeting to the Earth at heights above around 1,500 feet, the higher you are the better, at least to a certain point. You see, at a mere 1,500 feet, you will reach your terminal velocity before you hit the ground, which is around 120-140 mph for a typical adult human who is trying their best to fall as slowly as possible. The problem for you is that starting your fall at around 1,500 feet is going to only give you approximately 10-12 seconds before you go splat. Not a whole lot of time to do anything useful.
On the other end of things, falling from, say, 30,000 feet will see you initially having to endure extremely unpleasant temperatures in the ballpark of -40 C/F and air rushing all around making it all the more frigid. You also may well briefly lose consciousness from lack of oxygen. So why is this better? Well, on the one hand if you never regain consciousness, you at least are spared the terrifying few minute fall. But, for most, you’re likely to regain consciousness with around 1-2 minutes or so to execute your survival plan.
Sure, you’re probably going to die anyway, but, hey, having something — anything — to do will help distract you from the truth that your adventure here on Earth is about to end and, no matter who you are, the fact that you ever existed will soon be forgotten — for most, in a shockingly short amount of time…
But do not go gentle into that good night my friends. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
So to begin with, to give you the maximum amount of time to execute a plan and reduce your speed as much as possible, you should first spread out in the classic X/W belly down skydiver pose. This is shockingly effective at slowing you down. For example, in the most streamlined of free fall cases, it turns out it’s actually possible to reach speeds well over twice the aforementioned 120-ish mph that is more typical in this X pose.
There is a way to slow down significantly more, but it’s not yet time to try this trick. For now, once position assumed, your first priority is to look for any object to cling to — bonus points if the object is falling slower than you. It turns out so called “Wreckage Riders” are about twice as likely to survive such a fall vs. those who have nothing to cling to but the knowledge that they wasted so much of their lives worrying and seeking after things that didn’t actually matter and now can do nothing about it.
As for why Wreckage Riders have such a significantly higher survival rate, this is not only because of the potential for the object to slow one’s terminal velocity a bit in some cases, but also potentially to use as a buffer between them and the ground.
As noted by professor Ulf Björnstig of Umeå University, when at speeds of around terminal velocity for humans, you only actually need about a half a meter or so distance to decelerate to make surviving at least theoretically possible. Every extra centimeter beyond that counts significantly at increasing your odds.
On that note, don’t be afraid to think outside of the box on this one — just as having a person by your side when you find yourself being chased by a bear can potentially be a huge advantage (changing almost certain death to almost certain survivability if you are a faster runner than said person), in free fall, the body of another passenger who is likewise about to bid adieu to the world and promptly be forgotten is also a major asset — in this case via placing said person between yourself and the ground before you hit it. Bonus Survivability points if you can find a morbidly obese individual. Sure, the terminal velocity will be slightly higher in such a case, but that extra padding is going to go a long way.
Just be sure that the other passenger doesn’t have the same idea.
Pro-tip for avoiding your last moments being spent cartwheeling through the air trying to elbow drop a person from low orbit — go in like you’re wanting to give them a loving hug; to shed this mortal coil in the arms of another. As if to say, it’s going to be OK, we’re in this together. Then shortly before striking the ground, quickly rotate to have their body beneath you. They’ll never see it coming.
And don’t underestimate the power of a group hug forming in this scenario. All those soft, soft bodies to put between you and the ground…
On the other hand, should you want to be selfless for some weird reason, and say, save your child or something, a couple of parents stacking themselves with child on top face up not only would give the child the greatest chance of surviving, but also maybe even a genuine decent one as kids, particularly under the age of 4, are noted as being significantly more likely to survive falls from any height anyway, let alone when you give them a nice thick buffer of two bodies who have spent way too much of their lives eating delicious KFC.
Regardless of whether you manage to find some wreckage or another human to ride all the way down, continuing the theme, you want to do your best to aim for the softest thing you can see. And the target doesn’t even have to be that close per se. For those who know what they’re doing, traveling a horizontal distance of even as much as one mile for every mile they fall is fully possible without any special equipment. It turns out this is actually how you can shave another 20-40 mph off your decent rate via what’s known as tracking — essentially positioning your body in such a way that you will gain speed in the horizontal direction as you fall; for a good tracker able to achieve horizontal speeds approximately equal to their vertical speed.
Unfortunately there is no exact consensus as to what the best position is for tracking with maximal efficiency, as different body types respond differently and the like, but the general method is to straighten your legs rather than bend and bring them together. At the same time, bring your arms to your sides, with hands palms down, and then make your body fairly flat with head angled slightly lower than your feet.
Of course, someone with no experience maneuvering around while free falling is going to do a poor job at actually doing any of this, let alone then at some point managing to hit even a huge target. And as for the benefits of reducing vertical descent rate a bit in favor of increasing horizontal, it’s not really clear whether this would be worth it in the vast majority of cases. For instance, just imagine jumping out of a car going 100 mph and how that would work out for you. Now add in also dropping at around 100 mph at the same time… You’re going to have a bad time.
As for aiming at a soft target, this is definitely valuable. So if you find yourself plummeting towards the Earth, be sure and make a mental note to have past you go ahead and practice maneuvering while free falling at some point.
Moving swiftly on, what are the best soft things to try to hit? Well, when looking at the records of the people who have managed to survive such falls, deep snow is almost always going to be your best bet if there’s any around.
For example, consider the case of British Tail-gunner Nick Alkemade. In 1944, with his plane going down, he chose to jump from his burning aircraft despite the tiny insignificant detail of his parachute having been rendered useless before he jumped. While you might think his subsequent fall of over 18,000 feet would surely be his end, in fact, thanks to the magic of tree branches and deep snow, his most significant injury was just a sprained leg, though he was quickly captured by the Germans. More impressed by his near death experience than his nationality, they released him a couple months later and gave him a certificate commemorating his fall and subsequent survival.
Snow also has the huge advantage of the fact that, thanks to it more or less being everywhere when it’s present, you don’t really need to know what you’re doing to hit it.
Now, if it’s not the dead of winter, but any of the other seasons, a freshly tilled farm field or one with ultra thick vegetation will probably be your next best bet — both providing at least some deceleration buffer while also giving you a big target to aim for that you can see while still quite high in the sky.
For example, in 2015, veteran of over 2500 sky diving jumps, Victoria Cilliers, managed to survive a fall from about 4,000 feet by landing in a freshly plowed field. Granted, she did suffer broken ribs, hip, and fractured some vertebrae in her back, but she lived. As for her husband, who had intentionally tampered with both her main parachute and reserve so that they wouldn’t work properly (and previously attempted to kill her by creating a gas leak in their house), well, he got to move out of their house and into prison.
As for vegetation, even thorny blackberry bushes are better than nothing, though any chance of actually aiming and hitting them in reality is probably poor. But for whatever it is worth, in 2006 professional skydiver Michael Holmes managed just this, though not intentionally, when both his main chute and backup failed to deploy correctly. In his case, he suffered a concussion, a shattered ankle, and a slew of more minor injuries, but was otherwise fine.
Now you might at this point be wondering why we haven’t mentioned water, perhaps thinking it a great choice as a soft target to try to hit, and in some respects you’re not wrong. The problem is that at high velocity, water isn’t exactly soft- think belly flopping from a diving bored. That said, as many an extreme cliff diver has demonstrated, water can be a hell of a lot more forgiving than a cement sidewalk if you hit it properly.
The problem being most people aren’t exactly practiced at this sort of diving and even for the pros, at terminal velocity you’re almost certainly going to break a lot of bones, among many other issues. And don’t even get us started on the fact that hitting the water at those speeds can potentially cause said water to shoot into your anal orifice with enough force to cause internal bleeding.
Whether that happens or not, even if by some miracle you survive, you’re probably going to be rendered unconscious or unable to swim properly. So unless David Hasselhoff happens to be nearby, not a great choice.
Now, lacking something soft to land on or the Hoff to rescue you, you want to look for something — anything — to break your fall before you hit the ground. Illustrating just how valuable this can be, consider the case of Christine McKenzie who, in 2004, found herself plummeting to the ground from 11,000 feet. Just before impact, she first hit some live power lines. While you might assume that would have sliced, diced, and fried her, in fact, she walked away from the whole thing with nothing more than a couple of broken bones and bumps and bruises.
Once again illustrating just how valuable hitting just about anything before hitting the ground can be, in 1943 New Jersey native Alan Magee was at about 20,000 feet when he decided to jump from his B-17 bomber, which had recently had a wing partially blown off. Unlike the aforementioned Nick Alkemade who made a similar decision, Magee actually did have a parachute. Unfortunately for him, he blacked out after being thrown from the aircraft and never deployed it.
He eventually fell through the glass ceiling of the St. Nazaire train station in France, which slowed him enough that he managed to survived the impact with the stone ground below. Not exactly unscathed, when treated he was found to have a couple dozen shrapnel wounds from the previous air battle, then many broken bones and internal injuries as a result of the aftermath of falling 20,000 feet. While he was subsequently taken captive, he came through alright and lived to a whopping 84 years old, dying in late 2003.
As another example of a ceiling striker, we have the 2009 case of cameraman Paul Lewis whose main chute failed on a dive, at which point he cut it away and deployed his reserve chute… which also failed, resulting in his descent being little slowed. He ended up hitting the roof of an airplane hanger after about a 10,000 foot fall. Not only did he survive the incident, but his only major immediate injury was to his neck, though he apparently made a full recovery.
From the limited data at hand, a better choice of something to break your fall than power lines and roofs appears to be a thickly wooded forest. Not only is this easier to aim for, while trees can potentially skewer you, their branches have saved many a free faller in the past, such as Flight Lieutenant Thomas Patrick McGarry who fell from 13,000 feet and had his fall broken by a series of fir tree branches.
This all brings us around to what position you should be in when you actually hit the ground. As you might imagine, the data set we have to work with simply isn’t big enough to definitively answer this question, and for some weird reason randomly dropping thousands of people out of planes and asking them to try to land in various positions over various surface types isn’t a study anyone has ever done.
However, we do have some indications of what’s best thanks to, among other sources, data collected by the Federal Aviation Agency and countless experiments conducted by NASA who, when they’re not trying to keep the world ignorant of its flat nature and keep people away from the ice wall that keeps the oceans in (yes, there are actually people who believe this), has done their best to figure out the limits of what G-forces humans can reasonably survive and how best to survive them on the extreme end.
So what’s the consensus here? It’s almost universally stated that regardless of how high you fall from, you should land on the balls of your feet, legs together, all joints bent at least a little, then attempt to crumple slightly back and sideways (the classic 5 point impact sequence — feet, calf, thigh, buttock, and shoulder). In this recommendation, you should also have your arms wrapped around your head to protect it and completely relaxing every muscle in your body, lest everything just snap instantly instead of using the surprisingly extreme elasticity of your various bits to slow things down over some greater unit of time.
Something to keep in mind in some cases, however, is that NASA’s research indicates this so called “eyes down” impact (where the G-forces are such that your eye balls get forced downwards — so the widely recommended position here) actually maximizes your chance of injury and death in their studies of extreme G force effects on the human body. Their data instead shows that “eyes in” (so G forces pushing you back into something — think like accelerating in a car where you’re pushed back into the seat) is the way your body can take the most force and survive.
The problem, of course, is that the forces involved in free falling from great heights are too extreme in most cases for your body to survive in this eyes-in position. Thus, while you might receive a lot more injuries from the upright position landing, the whole point is to sacrifice your feet, legs, and on up in an attempt to reduce the ultimate G forces felt by your organs and, of course, impact force when your head hits the surface.
That said, from this there is some argument to be made that perhaps falling back instead of sideways may be superior, assuming you can manage to properly protect your head with your arms.
Whether that’s true or not, presumably there are some scenarios, such as landing in super deep, powdery snow, where landing face up in a bit of a reclined position with head tucked in and arms protecting said head, might actually be superior for similar reasons why stuntmen, trapeze performers, daredevils and the like will generally choose this reclined position for their landings onto soft things.
We should also probably mention that if you do hit the ground with a horizontal speed as well, the general recommendation, besides protect your head with your arms, is to quite literally attempt to roll with it and not try to fight that in the slightest. Resistance is futile in this case and attempts towards this end will only increase the odds of you being injured and dying.
- The current world record for surviving a free fall without a parachute is held by one Vesna Vulovic, who managed to survive a plummet of about 33,330 feet on January 26, 1972. On that day, Vulovic found herself in such a situation after the commercial airline she was on was blown up mid-flight, with it presumed to be the work of Croatian nationalist. Whatever the case, everyone aboard the plane died but Vulovic, who not only benefited from being an accidental wreckage rider, but also had her wreckage hit some trees and land on snow on a slope- — literally all best case scenarios. While she did break many, many bones in her body, among a variety of serious injuries, and ultimately wound up in a coma for some time, it’s noted that when she woke up, pretty much the first thing she did was ask a doctor for a cigarette. We’re not sure if this makes her a stone-cold badass or just someone who really needed to think about the severity of her nicotine addition.
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This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.