You’re six miles up, alone and falling without a parachute.
You have a late night and an early flight. Not long after take-off, you drift off to sleep. Suddenly, there’s cold air rushing everywhere, and sound. Intense, horrible sound. Where am I? Where’s the plane?
You are six miles up. You’re alone. You’re falling.
Things are obviously bad, but now’s the time to focus on the good news. Although gravity is against you, another force is working in your favor, and that’s time. Believe it or not, you’re better off up here than if you’d slipped from the balcony of your high-rise hotel room after one too many drinks last night. Or at least you will be better off.
Oxygen is scarce at these heights. By now, hypoxia is starting to set in. You’ll be unconscious soon, and you’ll fall at least a mile before waking up again. When that happens, remember what you are about to read. The ground, after all, is your next destination.
Granted, the odds of surviving a plummet when you are six miles up are extraordinarily slim, but at this point you’ve got nothing to lose by understanding your situation. There are two ways to fall out of a plane. The first is to free-fall, or drop from the sky with absolutely no protection or means of slowing your descent. The second is to become a wreckage rider, a term coined by Massachusetts-based amateur historian Jim Hamilton, who developed the Free Fall Research Page, an online database of nearly every imaginable human plummet.
Whether you’re attached to a crumpled piece of fuselage or just plain falling, the concept you’ll be most interested in is terminal velocity. As gravity pulls you toward earth, you go faster. But like any moving object, you create drag, which grows as your speed increases. When downward force (gravity) equals upward resistance (drag), acceleration stops. You max out. Depending on your size and weight, and factors such as air density, your speed at that moment will be about 120 mph, and you’ll get there after a surprisingly brief bit of falling: just 1,500 feet, which is about the same height as Chicago’s Willis Tower.
Equal speed means you hit the ground with equal force. The difference is the clock. Falling from the Chicago tower you will meet the Windy City sidewalk in 12 seconds. Falling from an airplane’s cruising altitude, you’ll have almost enough time to read this entire article. Remember, you are six miles up.
By now, you’ve descended into breathable air. You splutter into consciousness. At this altitude, you’ve got roughly 2 minutes until impact. Your plan is simple. You will enter a Zen state and decide to live. You will understand “that it isn’t the fall that kills you—it’s the landing.”
Keeping your wits about you, you take aim. But at what? A World-War-II pilot’s landing on the stone floor of a French train station was softened by the skylight he crashed through a moment earlier. Glass hurts, but it gives. So does grass. Haystacks and bushes have cushioned surprised-to-be-alive free-fallers. Trees aren’t bad, though they tend to skewer you. Snow is wonderful. A swamp, with its mucky air and plant-covered surface is even better. Contrary to popular belief, hitting the ocean, or any sort of water, is essentially the same as colliding with a sidewalk. Water has no compressive “give”.
With a landing target in mind, the next consideration is body position. To slow your descent, emulate a sky diver. Spread your arms and legs, present your chest to the ground, and arch your back and head upward. This adds friction and helps you manoeuvre. But don’t relax. This is not your landing pose.
No matter what the surface, definitely don’t land on your head. In a 1977 “Study of Impact Tolerance through Free-Fall Investigations,” researchers at the Highway Safety Research Institute found that the major cause of death in falls—they examined drops from buildings, bridges and the occasional elevator shaft (oops!)—was cranial contact. If you have to arrive top-down, sacrifice your good looks and land on your face, rather than the back or top of your head. Given your starting altitude, you’ll be just about ready to hit the ground as you reach this section of instruction (based on the average adult reading speed of 250 words per minute). The basics have been covered, so feel free to concentrate on the task at hand. Choosing a landing site, steering towards it, and surviving the impact.
If you are lucky, you will wake up, find the aircraft’s wheels have touched safely down on the tarmac. Despite the nightmare, you will understand the odds of any kind of accident on a commercial flight are slimmer than slim. You will also smile, as you realize you’re never likely to have to use this information.