Can You Survive A Freefall Without A Parachute?
Surprisingly, the answer is yes.
There have been documented cases of people jumping from planes and their parachute malfunctioned or failed to open – only they survived the fall. In a few cases, people have fallen from planes without parachutes and survived.
Fall or Fire?
One such person was Flight Sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade, a tail gunner in world war 2 for Britain. On his way back from a bombing raid into Germany, he encountered some German fighter planes and his bomber took damage.
The bomber caught fire and began to spiral out of control. Because his parachute was destroyed by the fire, Alkemade opted to jump from the aircraft without one. He decided to die by impact rather than fire. He fell 18,000 feet to the ground below.
Luckily for him, pine trees broke most of his fall, and he landed in deep snow. He lived and only suffered a sprained leg. He was quickly captured and interviewed by the Gestapo, who were suspicious of his claim to have fallen without a parachute until they examined the wreckage of the aircraft. He was later repatriated in May 1945 and died in his home June 22, 1987.
World Record Holder
But Vesna Vulovic currently holds the Guinness record for highest free fall without a parachute at 33,333 feet. She was a Serbian flight attendant aboard JAT Flight 367 when a bomb went off in the baggage compartment mid flight.
The plane broke completely apart in midair. Vesna suffered a broken skull, three broken vertebrae (one crushed completely), and was in a coma for 27 days.
What To Do If You Find Yourself Falling Without A Parachute
The first thing that you have to do is to stop panicking. Skydivers get off the plane at 12,000 feet above the ground. During free fall you’re going at 125 miles per hour. At 125 miles per hour you’re going to travel at 12,000 feet in one minute. That’s all the time you have to look for the best landing spot, and aim for it.
First, flatten out with the front of your body facing the ground. This will help you ‘steer’. Then look for the softest patch of ground. Preferably trees and grass. Marshy areas (swamps) and deep snow are best. Anything ‘hard’ you want to avoid. Like concrete, pavement, buildings… Those surfaces won’t ‘give’ or absorb much of the impact. If there are any hills, in the area, aim for those as well. Try to come in at an angle so you can roll which will soften and spread out the force the impact. Also, land feet first. You will bounce, and you want to protect your head as much as possible.
Water landings are best done landing feet-first with legs tight together and arms tight against the front of your body with your hands protecting your groin, while leaning back very slightly. Leaning back helps to reduce forced unnatural movement of the neck and the amount of water that will rush up your nose. Also, contract your buttocks so that water does not rush in and cause severe internal damage.
Foster, Tom. (1992) Their Darkest Day: The Tragedy of Pan Am 103, ISBN 0-8021-1382-6
“Vesna Vulovic: How to survive a bombing at 33,000 feet” December 2001.