Airplanes

How to Survive Falling Without a Parachute

You're hurtling toward the ground at more than 120 miles per hour (200 kilometers per hour). Your ears are roaring with the sound of the wind as you fall. Maybe your mind registers the terror of your situation, or maybe a calm comes over you and that Tom Petty song comes into your head. Either way, it's time to focus: You don't have much time to figure out how to save yourself.

The odds of surviving a free fall without a parachute are pretty slim, but it's been done before. In the extremely unlikely chance that you find yourself in that situation, here's what you need to know.

Free Fallin'

Believe it or not, people have survived a fall from this height. Skydiver Michael Holmes, who fell from 15,000 feet (4,500 kilometers), is one of the few who lived to tell the tale. You might be surprised to learn that he felt "almost at peace" during his fall and embarrassed upon realizing that he had lived.

Sometimes surviving is almost more difficult. Juliane Koepcke, a German teenager, survived an airplane explosion in 1971 and awoke to find herself strapped into her seat, severely injured and alone on the jungle floor. Remarkably, she waded through streams teeming with dangerous animals like crocodiles and stingrays with a broken collarbone and only a bag of candy to eat for 10 days before she was rescued. On top of all that, she later said that she didn't even feel fear! Talk about an overachiever.

If you find yourself in this predicament, listen up. Depending on how far you're falling, you won't have more than a few minutes before you meet the ground. If you're falling from 35,000 feet (10,000 kilometers), the average height of a commercial flight, you'll have about three minutes. That first minute or two may not even count, though, because the air you're falling through has so little oxygen that it causes you to pass out, a condition known as hypoxia.

The good news is that the air below 18,000 feet (5,500 kilometers) has much more oxygen, meaning you'll come to just in time to re-experience the horror of free falling!

Again, don't freak out. You haven't got much time to plan your landing.

Do Look Down

First, zero in on a landing spot; this is critical to your survival. Swamps, snow, and grass (in that order!) are ideal because they have some give and provide cushioning for your fall. Falling into foliage like trees or bushes is also not a terrible option, though there's a much greater chance that you'll sustain further injuries from the branches.

You may think that a body of water would be a good place to land. You'd be dead wrong — literally. Like concrete, water doesn't compress. Your body will hit the water just as hard as it would the sidewalk, breaking all the same bones, collapsing your lungs, and knocking you unconscious. There's a small chance that you'd eventually wake up on the sidewalk, albeit severely injured. In the water, your unconscious body would drown. That's one deadly belly flop.

Stick the Landing

TV shows and movies always show spies, paratroopers, and skydivers falling with their body in the shape of an X. You don't want to do that at first. Instead, bring your arms and legs in against your body like a bobsledder so you can steer yourself toward your landing spot. You can extend your arms and legs into the X formation once you're over your target in an attempt to slow your fall a bit, which gives you a little extra time to position yourself for landing. In a 15,000-foot fall, this kind of maneuvering can actually steer you sideways up to 2 miles (3 kilometers), according to the Free Fall Research Page. You have a surprising amount of flexibility in your choice of landing zone.

Regardless of where you land, your goal should be to land vertically, feet first with your legs together. If your unfortunate soul has to land in water, this is especially important. Experts say to try and enter the water like pencil or knife, and remember to clench your butt. This leaves the least surface area to be pummeled by the water.

If you're landing on land, you'll want to make sure to bend your knees and allow your body to fall sideways so that your feet hitting the ground is followed by your calf, thigh, butt, and shoulder. Most critically, and again, regardless of landing spot, make sure to protect your head. Hitting your head (particularly the back of your head near your brain stem) is much more likely to kill you.

If you do survive your landing, your next step is to find rescue. But chances are good that you'll never have to use this advice in the first place — per mile traveled, a car ride is 470 times more likely to kill you than an airline flight. In either case, you definitely want to buckle up!

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Hear Juliane Koepcke's whole story in her book "When I Fell From the Sky." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Steffie Drucker July 17, 2019

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