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How Far Can You Fall and Survive?

VO: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Do you suffer from vertigo? Are you scared of heights? Then look away now! The human body is a miraculous thing, but there are some events it just can't withstand - and falling from a massive height is usually one of them. However, there are examples of people who have fallen thousands of feet and lived to tell the tale. How did they do it? And how far can a person fall before they're really lucky to get out alive?

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How Far Can You Fall and Still Survive?

It’s a situation that none of us ever want to be in – you find yourself falling through the air without a parachute, with the ground quickly coming up to meet you. Unsurprisingly, such scenarios end in instant death 99.9% of the time. Surviving a fall from great heights is massively improbable. Heck, even a two or three-story drop could be enough to seriously injure or even kill you depending on how you landed, and what you landed on. But there’s always that 0.1% chance of survival – and those that make it often earn headlines around the world. What was it that allowed them to survive such massive falls? Do all humans have the capacity to survive similar events? And ultimately, how far is too far to fall?

Arguably two of the most well-known survivors of massive falls are Alan Magee and Vesna Vulović. Alan Magee was an American ball turret gunner who served in World War II. While on a mission over France, German fighters heavily damaged his right wing, forcing Magee to eject from the plane. Only, his parachute was also damaged in the attack, so he fell 22,000 feet, or over four miles, and crashed through the glass ceiling of a local train station. Despite suffering massive injuries, including broken bones, organ damage, and a nearly-severed arm, Magee was taken prisoner and treated by the enemy. He was later freed and lived until 2003 when he died from a stroke at 84.

The story of Vesna Vulović is perhaps even more incredible, if that’s even possible. Vulović was a flight attendant who was serving on the ill-fated JAT Flight 367 in 1972, which was targeted by terrorists and exploded in mid-air – killing all but one of the people on board. Vulović fell over 33,000 feet and survived, which still stands as a world record – if an oddly morbid one. While she was incredibly lucky to be the plane’s only survivor, Vulović was in an even worse way than Magee. She’d suffered a crushed vertebra, a fractured pelvis, several broken ribs, and a fractured skull, resulting in a days-long coma. She was also temporarily paralyzed from the waist down and suffered from amnesia, as the last thing she remembered was greeting passengers. She underwent numerous surgeries and eventually walked again, although with a limp, living for another four decades before she died in 2016, at 66.

Both of these cases prove that it is indeed possible to survive falls of up to 33,000 feet. But how?

There are numerous variables that contribute to surviving such a descent. A crucial deciding factor is where you land and what you land on. Clearly, falling from 30,000 feet directly onto concrete will result in instant death. However, crash into something that can greatly absorb your energy and slow your momentum, such as puffy snow or groups of tall trees, and you may be OK. Alan Magee likely survived because he crashed through the glass ceiling of the train station. While falling that far directly onto a plane of glass is in no way advised, it greatly reduced his momentum and mitigated the force of impact with the ground. If ever there’s evidence of ‘guardian angels’ and ‘fates aligning’, then Alan’s story is probably it!

Vulović was the only survivor of the explosion she experienced because she was not sucked out of the airplane like the other passengers and crew. Instead, she was wedged between a food cart and the wall of the fuselage, which plummeted all those thousands of feet until it landed amidst a group of trees on a snow-covered hill. If the fuselage had slammed directly into the ground, Vulović would have almost certainly died. However, the trees and snow helped to cushion the landing and broke the wrecked plane’s momentum and energy, allowing for a much tamer and softer moment of impact.

Others have survived incredible falls due to an improbably fortuitous landing, too. A Russian Air Force lieutenant named Ivan Chisov lived to tell the tale of a 23,000-foot drop after landing in a snowy ravine. Nicholas Alkemade, an English airman, survived an 18,000-foot fall after landing in some trees. And the German teenager Juliane Koepcke withstood a 10,000-foot fall by remaining strapped to her airplane seat. In her own words, she believed the seat “buffered” her to safety. Therefore, it’s clear that humans can survive incredible falls as long as there’s something to soften our landings.

Another major variable is how you land. Experts believe that the best way to freefall is to completely stretch out your arms and legs and splay out your body as much as possible. This increases your surface area, which in turn increases drag and slows your descent. If you’re wearing loose and baggy clothing, this could also help. And then you just have to hope to land in a cushy area as previously mentioned – taking your time to aim for a favourable location, if you haven’t already passed out. While it feels as though this method of falling – splaying yourself out – might increase your chances of injury, it’s still preferable to falling head or feet first. A straightened body picks up way more speed, meaning even a softer landing spot could prove ineffectual.

Speed in general is an important factor of determining the max height we can fall from – but not the be all and end all. Theoretically speaking, we could actually survive drops significantly higher than even Vesna Vulović’s 33,000 feet record. This is because humans reach terminal velocity after around twelve-to-fifteen seconds of freefall. As this is the absolute fastest that we can fall, it’s clear that we could survive ANY descent – based on speed alone. In exceptionally lucky circumstances, we’ve already proven that a peak speed fall isn’t always fatal. So, once terminal velocity is reached, it doesn’t matter how far you fall – it only matters how you land and what you land on. Of course, there is an upper limit, set by how far up we can actually travel before we die from the effects of atmospheric change – which come into play at around 60,000 feet.

So, how high is too high? In theory, we could survive falls of up to 60, 70, or even 80,000 feet, under exceptionally fortunate circumstances. As long as the fall starts from a point where we can still breathe and function as usual, there’s still the slimmest of slim hopes for survival. That said, the general consensus is that all bets are off once terminal velocity is reached. Yes, people have walked away from falls such as these – but the likelihood of it happening is so infinitesimally small that it should never be relied upon. As for long distance falls where you don’t reach terminal velocity, it all rests on how you land, where you land and how lucky you really are.

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