Things You Thought You Knew #12: How to Survive Falling Out of an Airplane

What You Thought You Knew: If you fall out of an airplane when it’s at cruising altitude (around 35,000 feet), there’s no way you’ll survive.

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What You Didn’t Know: While I wouldn’t use the word “many” to describe the number of people who have survived falls from airplanes, they do exist, and they’re probably a bit more numerous than you’d think.

The fact that people survive, though, is not the primary goal of this post. It is, after all, about “things you thought you knew” — so let’s address some things you probably thought are good for you if you’re falling from such a height.

Myth #1: Try to land in the water, since it will give out and break your fall.

Yeah, no. Scientists have shown that, if you’re coming from above roughly 1,000 feet, water is no better than concrete. Falling less than that (maybe a few stories)? Definitely find some water if you can. But at the velocity you’ll be going after a fall from a plane, water may actually be more dangerous than landing on concrete — at least with concrete, when you get knocked out from the impact you won’t drown.

If anything, you want to try to aim for sloped hills that you’ll roll down afterward, soft things like snow, swamps, hay, or bushes (or trees, if you deem the landscape so not-good-for-falling-people that the risk of being impaled outweighs the rest), or even aluminum/tin roofs or glass buildings and cars. All are better than the good ol’ ground.

Myth #2: Land on your feet, no matter what.

While it is best to land on the balls of your feet (with your knees bent) if at all possible, there are some situations where trying to do so would put you in more danger. If it will take a contortion to get you feet-down and you run the risk of landing on your side or in some sort of “incomplete” flip-over to your feet, the next best option, if you can believe it, is to land on your face.

Make no mistake — your “face” is not the same as your “head.” DON’T land on your head (especially the back of your head). It’s for this reason that you should lace your fingers together behind your head with your elbows facing forward during impact. But your face has a lot of extra cartilage and bones that can help to absorb the shock before it reaches your brain. You’re not going to come out looking like Natalie Portman, but you might just live.

That being said, do try not to land on your face at all. Feet, please.

Myth #3: I’ll have a lot of time to steer myself to a good place to land.

Well, yes and no. Yes, if you fall from cruising altitude, you’ll have around 2 or 2.5 minutes of free-falling. But you won’t be conscious for all of it. There’s not much oxygen up there, so you’ll be knocked out for about a minute of your total falling time. Still, one minute remaining is plenty to give you time to look around and think, so don’t panic.

It’s possible to steer yourself while in the air, and put your body into an arch to slow yourself down as much as possible.

Myth #4: I should try to get as far away from debris as possible while falling.

While it’s true that any debris (such as from a broken plane wing) could be dangerous, if you can in any way get hold of a piece of plane, DO IT. People who hit the ground while attached to a piece of debris have a significantly higher chance of survival than those who don’t (31 survivors to 13). These people are often called “wreckage riders.”

So, snag some debris, aim for a snowy hilltop, and enjoy your few minutes of contemplating the essence of life as you fall to your (probably still quite likely) death. But keep a good attitude — of the people who have survived, almost all claim that their “never give up” attitude helped them to think calmly and clearly. And they’re still alive — that says something.

Now You Know: what to do in case you fall out of an airplane.

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