Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Should You Find Yourself Plummeting

August 30th, 2010 · 5 Comments

Whenever a plane I’m on is close enough to its destination that houses and cars appear, I can’t help thinking to myself: “If I fell from here, could I survive?” There is something about having a visual sense of the ground that makes a parachute-less airplane jump seem survivable. If those motor vehicles can zip along the highways below with such silent smoothness, surely I could manage to flutter to Earth like a feather.

It’s all a ridiculous illusion, of course, as the vast majority of humans who fall more than a scant three stories do not live to tell the tale. But there are some fantastic exceptions, many of which are chronicled here. And based on the handful of incidents in which people have survived drops from well above 10,000 feet, there is even a rough set of instructions for those who wish to prepare themselves for similarly dangerous circumstances. A useful snippet for readers who live in fear of plunging from the heavens:

Just how fast are you going? Imagine standing atop a train going 120 mph, and the train goes through a tunnel but you do not. You hit the wall above the opening at 120 mph. That’s how fast you will be going at the end of your fall. Yes, it’s discouraging, but proper planning requires that you know the facts. You’re used to seeing things fall more slowly. You’re used to a jump from a swing or a jungle gym, or a fall from a three-story building on TV action news. Those folks are not going 120 mph. They will not bounce. You will bounce…

At this point you will think: trees. It’s a reasonable thought. The concept of “breaking the fall” is powerful, as is the hopeful message implicit in the nursery song “Rock-a-bye, Baby,” which one must assume from the affect of the average singer tells the story not of a baby’s death but of its survival. You will want a tall tree with an excurrent growth pattern—a single, undivided trunk with lateral branches, delicate on top and thicker as you cascade downward. A conifer is best. The redwood is attractive for the way it rises to shorten your fall, but a word of caution here: the redwood’s lowest branches grow dangerously high from the ground; having gone 35,000 feet, you don’t want the last 50 feet to ruin everything. The perfectly tiered Norfolk Island pine is a natural safety net, so if you’re near New Zealand, you’re in luck, pilgrim. When crunch time comes, elongate your body and hit the tree limbs at a perfectly flat angle as close to the trunk as possible. Think!

As always in these situations, though, it’s better to be lucky than good. Just ask Vesna Vulovic, who survived the 1973 bombing of JAT Flight 367 for reasons that no one has ever been able to figure out. Vulovic herself credits a slight physiological abnormality:

PB: Looking back at the incident, how do you think you survived?

VV: Nobody knows that. One of them said that I had very low blood pressure. I should never have been an air hostess in fact. I had a lot of coffee to drink before my interview, so that when I had my medical exam I passed. Maybe my low blood pressure saved me. I lost consciousness quickly and my heart did not burst.

American tail gunner Alan Magee also survived a drop from great heights, after being shot down over France in 1943. The secret of his survival? Perhaps it was incessant screaming.

(Image of Free Fall via G.I. Joe: Underground)


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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    While not quite the same, that reminds me of a story I heard about an ice climber who fell 300 feet. No injuries. Except for an ice ax through the leg. Then they had to walk out.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: And on the flipside, there are so many stories about people dying in bathtub falls. Which makes me suspect that so much depends on the precise position of the body on impact.

  • ADW

    “Much will depend on your attitude. Don’t let negative thinking ruin your descent.”

    Ahh, the power of positive thinking. It must be a challenge to control your thoughts in this situation, but not impossible, I suppose. I always though, and the link confirmed it, that it’s how you land that saves your life. And, making your body as limp as possible. Isn’t that why young kids have more of a chance to survive these falls?

    Incidentally, I lost my aunt in a bathtub fall (we weren’t close, and there were alcohol issue involved). That’s why putting traction in a bathtub is so important. Every time I step into an unfamiliar tub, I make it a point to plant my feet in a stable manner. I suppose so many people die this way because the blow to the head is pretty intense. It’s easy to dismiss it after it happens and end up with some sort of brain bleed.

  • Jordan

    Yeah, bathtub falls can be really nasty. On a wilderness volunteering trip I took in high school, one of the leaders ended up telling us about the time she fell in the bathtub during college. After coming to, she eventually discovered that she couldn’t understand symbols anymore. Kind of a problem when you’re in college and expected to read a lot and take notes, not to mention the everyday troubles. She ended up reading a passage from a book to us at that point and it was clear that reading was still something of a struggle for her, even after years of relearning. Amazing what a little deceleration can do to brain tissue.

  • Dyre42

    “Much will depend on your attitude. Don’t let negative thinking ruin your descent.”

    I heard,”I’ll bounce off of that flagpole and flip to safety.” in my head when I read that.

    Frame of reference linkage: