Humans are a hearty species. We didn’t crawl to the top of food chain without taking a few punches or weathering a few saber-tooth cat bites. But there a few sure-fire ways to kill a human, and falling out of an airplane has to be one of them, right? That’s why we invented parachutes (though first thought up in Renaissance Italy, the modern, frameless style was first used in France in the late 18th century). But what about an unimpeded plummet to the ground without the aid of a parachute? Surely that will kill any person that has the misfortune to experience it. But as these five crazy turns of events show, given some miraculous circumstances, a human can absolutely survive a miles-long trip to the ground.
Vesna Vulović was a flight attendant on JAT Yugoslav Airlines, Yugoslavia’s national air carrier. On January 26, 1972, JAT Flight 367, flying from Stockholm to Belgrade, exploded over Czechoslovakia. The Douglas DC-9 aircraft broke in two and crashed on a wooded, snowy hill near the village of Srbská Kamenice. Everyone aboard the plane was killed in the crash except for Vulović, who was pinned inside the fuselage by a food cart (saving her from being sucked out of the decompressed cabin). The 22-year-old survived the fall from 33,333 feet, which gained her a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for longest fall without a parachute. Found partially within the wreckage of the fuselage, Vulović broke both legs, fractured her skull, suffered three broken vertebrae (temporarily paralyzing her) and was in a coma for almost a month. While its unknown how exactly Vulović survived the fall, some credit the plane hitting the hill at an angle, transferring some of the force of the crash, as well as seats and other objects in the cabin helping to break her fall.
The cause of the explosion is credited to a bomb planted by Croatian terrorists, though this claim has never been confirmed. Others claim that the plane was mistakenly shot down by the Czechoslovak air force, and that Vulović’s story was fabricated as a cover up (and a convenient way to discredit Croatian nationalism within Yugoslavia). Some eyewitness accounts claim that the plane was seen intact below the clouds before impact, far below 33,333 feet (the official report claims the plane exploded at 33,000 feet, based on the official report that cited the aircraft’s recorder. As she stated in an interview with Aviation Security International, Vulović remembers nothing between boarding the plane and waking up from her coma a month later. She remained an employee for the airline for many years after the crash, though the company forced her to take a desk post (because she had no memory of the crash, she had no reservations returning to flights). She was later fired in 1990 for criticizing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević.
Alan Magee was a B-17 bomber gunner, who held the unenviable job of ball turret gunner during World War II. The Sperry Ball Turret was a cramped metal and glass sphere located on the belly of the bomber and protected the plane from attacks from below. The operator lay on his back with his feet up, sandwiched between two .50 caliber machine guns (to save space, the turret gunner’s parachute was stored inside the main cabin of the plane). Even at 5’7”, Magee barely fit inside the claustrophobic turret.
While on a bombing run over Nazi-occupied France on January 9, 1943, Magee’s plane (fittingly named “Snap! Crackle! Pop!”) was hit by enemy fire and broke up over St. Nazaire. After climbing back into the cabin of the now spinning plane Magee managed to escape the bomber without his parachute, losing consciousness while he tumbled more than 20,000 feet to the ground. Surviving an unprotected fall from this height is miraculously possible if something happens to break the fall, slowing the speed at which you hit the ground. In Magee’s case, his fall was broken by the glass ceiling of the St. Nazaire train station. When he was captured by the Germans hours later, his right leg and ankle were broken, he nearly lost his right arm and had suffered 28 shrapnel wounds. He remained a POW until the end of the war in Europe in May 1945. He lived to be 84 and rarely spoke of surviving the nearly four mile drop.
While a tail gunner in a British Avro Lancaster bomber, 21-year-old Nicholas Alkemade was forced to make a harrowing decision when his plane was hit and caught fire over Germany in March, 1944. “The question was whether to stay in the plane and fry or jump to my death,” he described later, as reported by the Leicester Mercury. “I decided to jump and make a quick, clean end of things. I backed out of the turret and somersaulted away.” Alkemade then fell 18,000 feet to the ground, blacking out in the process. He awoke later in a snowdrift, next to the fir tree that had broken his fall. His only injury from the fall was a sprained leg. Until examining the wreckage of the aircraft, his German captors were skeptical of the details of Alkemade’s survival. “You say you fell from a plane, but you have no parachute.” He was later awarded a certificate from the Gestapo, with a colonel’s signature, for his death-defying feat. He spent the rest of the war as a POW, in the same camp that housed the prisoners who inspired “The Great Escape,” Stalag Luft III. The 76 men tunneled to freedom the same night that Alkemade fell from his plane. He later worked as a furniture salesman and passed away in 1991.
The only skydiver on this list, Joan Murray fully intended to depart an airborne plane on September 25, 1999, jumping from 4400 meters (about 14,450 feet). Less expected was the failure of her parachute to deploy. This is an emergency carefully planned for by skydivers, who carry a reserve chute for this scenario. Murray’s second parachute managed to open merely 700 feet from the ground, but in a confusing spin while rocketing towards the ground, the reserve chute deflated. “It wasn’t one of my finer, brilliant moments,” she joked to People. Murray hit the ground at 81 miles per hour, both fortunately and unfortunately, landing on a mound of fire ants. She sustained over 200 bites, and her doctors believed the adrenaline from the bug bites allowed her to survive the fall. She lay in a coma for two weeks, immensely swollen from the injuries, and returned home after a six week hospital stay. The Charlotte, North Carolina resident returned to work as an executive for Bank of America in June 2001 and the next month, with a metal rod in her right leg and five spikes in her pelvis, completed her 37th skydive.
Juliane Koepcke was a 17-year-old German-Peruvian high school senior traveling from Lima, Peru with her ornithologist mother to meet her biologist father in Pucallpa. It was Christmas Eve, 1971. Their plane, Lansa Flight 508, was struck by lightning, igniting the right wing. “We were headed straight down,” she told CNN. “Christmas presents were flying around the cabin and I could hear people screaming.” The fire caused the Lockheed Electra to break up over the Amazonian rainforest. Koepcke recalls losing consciousness as she spiraled headfirst towards the trees beneath her. The teenager awoke at 9am Christmas morning (her watch was still working), still strapped into her seat which had come to rest on the jungle floor. She had survived a 10,000 foot fall.
Unfortunately for Koepcke, surviving a two-mile fall out of the sky proved to be the “easiest” part of her ordeal. With a broken collarbone, an eye swollen shut, and gashes on her arms and legs, she set off to look for help. She soon encountered the bodies of three women still strapped in their seats. They were buried headfirst in two feet of dirt. Her mother also survived the crash, landing in another part of the jungle, but succumbed to her injuries before rescue. Following what her father had taught her about survival in the Amazonian jungle, she walked downhill in search of a stream, which she knew would lead her to civilization.
On her tenth day of wading through jungle streams, unable to sleep at night from her bug-infested wounds and having only eaten some candy scrounged from the crash site, she came across a small hut. Not wanting to steal the boat stored there, she instead used the kerosene fuel to drive maggots from her wounds (another survival method taught by her father). The next day, a group of Peruvian lumberjacks returned to the hut and brought her to Tournavista, where she was airlifted to Pucallpa to meet her father. Koepcke went on to become a biologist, conducting mammalogy research on bats in Peru. She now works as a librarian at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich. Koepcke later returned to the crash site while being profiled in Werner Herzog’s Wings of Hope documentary (Herzog himself narrowly missed traveling on Flight 508 due to a last minute change of plans while location scouting for a film).