6 Spectacular Survivors of Free Fall

Apr 12, 2023 0 comments

It is said that a fall from a height of only six feet can be deadly with broken bones, head injuries, spinal cord injuries and even death. But there have been instances where people have fallen from astounding heights and survived.

Vesna Vulović

On January 26, 1972, the JAT Yugoslav Airlines Flight 367 flying from Stockholm to Belgrade became the target of a terrorist attack. A suitcase bomb tucked inside the baggage compartment of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 aircraft exploded when the airplane was cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet over East Germany. The explosion tore through the fuselage of the narrow-body jetliner, breaking it apart into three pieces. The wreckage then crashed near the village of Srbská Kamenice in Czechoslovakia.

Among the crew was Vesna Vulovic, a 22-year-old Serbian flight attendant who was accidentally placed on the wrong flight. The bomb detonated 46 minutes after departure from Copenhagen Airport, causing the cabin to depressurize and passengers and crew to be sucked out of the plane and fall to their deaths. However, Vulovic was miraculously trapped inside a broken section of the fuselage, protected by a food cart, which crash-landed in a heavily wooded area cushioned by thick snow.

Bruno Honke, a villager who had served as a medic during World War II, discovered Vulovic alive amid the wreckage. She had suffered several injuries, including a fractured skull, broken legs and vertebrae, and a fractured pelvis and ribs. She was temporarily paralyzed below the waist and remained in a coma for several days. Doctors attributed her survival to her low blood pressure, which caused her to pass out quickly after the cabin depressurized and prevented her heart from bursting on impact.

After several surgeries, and ten months later, Vulovic was able to walk again although the accident left her with a permanent limp. By September 1972, and less than nine months after the incident, Vulovic was eager to go back to work, but JAT gave her a desk job instead, because they didn’t want Vulovic drawing too much publicity.

Juliane Koepcke

Juliane Koepcke

Juliane Koepcke returns to the crash site in 1998.

On Christmas Eve 1971, seventeen-year-old Juliane Koepcke was flying over the Peruvian rainforest with her mother when her plane was hit by lightning. Immediately after, the airplane began to nosedive and as it fell, it broke apart separating her from everyone else onboard. The next thing she knew she was out in the open, still strapped to her seat and plummeting to the jungle below.

The airplane was flying at an altitude of 21,000 feet when it ran into the thunderstorm. It broke apart at around 10,000 feet, and she fell from that height. Her survival was miraculous. Even her injuries—a broken collarbone, a sprained knee and a few gashes on her shoulders and legs—were minor.

For the next ten days, she walked through the dense Amazonian rainforest with nothing but a single bag of sweets for sustenance. Eventually she stumbled upon a group of fishermen in a hut, who took her to the hospital.

Her survival story has been the subject a 1974 Italian movie called Miracles Still Happen, and a documentary by director Werner Herzog called Wings of Hope. In 2011, she published her own autobiography, When I Fell From the Sky.

Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov

In January 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Chisov was flying on a Soviet Air Force Ilyushin Il-4 bomber when he was attacked by German fighters, forcing him to bail out at 23,000 feet. With the battle still raging in the sky, Chisov decided not to open his parachute immediately to prevent becoming an easy target and decided to wait until he had dropped below the level of the battle. Unfortunately, the thin atmosphere of the altitude caused him to pass out and he was unable to pull the rip cord

Chisov struck the edge of a snowy ravine at an estimated speed of somewhere between 190 and 240 km/h, then slid, rolled, and plowed his way to the bottom. When Chisov was seen falling to the ground, cavalrymen rushed to the site, and were surprised to find Chisov alive, still wearing his unopened parachute. He regained consciousness a short time later.

Despite the severity of his injuries—spinal injuries and a broken pelvis—Chisov recovered in only three months and was able to fly again.

Alan Magee

On January 3, 1943, American airman Alan Magee was on a daylight bombing run over Saint-Nazaire, France, when enemy fire blew the right wing off causing the aircraft to enter a deadly spin. Lack of oxygen because of the high altitude caused him to black out, and Magee was thrown clear of the aircraft. He fell over four miles before crashing through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station.

Magee suffered from several broken bones, severe damage to his nose and eye, lung and kidney damage, and a nearly severed right arm, in addition to numerous shrapnel wounds. After spending two years at a POW camp, Magee was was liberated and received the Air Medal for meritorious conduct and the Purple Heart.

Nicholas Alkemade

On the night of 24 March 1944, 21-year-old Nicholas Alkemade, a British tail gunner in the Royal Air Force, was returning from a raid on Berlin, when his bomber was attacked by German Junkers Ju 88. Alkemade’s airplane immediately caught fire and began to spiral out of control. His parachute too was destroyed forcing Alkemade to jump out of the burning plane without it. Alkemade felt that it was better to die on impact rather than burn to death.

Alkemade’s fall was broken by pine trees and a soft snow cover on the ground. Unbelievably, not only Alkemade survived the 18,000 feet fall, he did so with little injuries—only a sprained leg. The rest of the crew members all died in the crash.

Larisa Savitskaya

On August 24, 1981, a Tupolev Tu-16K strategic bomber collided with an An-24RV passenger airplane, which was going from Komsomolsk-on-Amur to Blagoveshchensk. The collision occurred at 17,000 feet, killing 37 people on both aircraft. The sole survivor was a 20-year-old young woman named Larisa Savitskaya on the passenger plane.

Larisa Savitskaya was returning home from honeymoon with her husband Vladimir. The plane was half-empty and the stewardess offered the couple seats in the front, but they decided to go to the back of the plane to feel less turbulence. This was one of the decisions that saved Larisa’s life. When the plane split, the seats in the front broke off and flew away, but the rear of the plane with Larisa’s seat stayed intact and begin to glide towards the ground. After 8 minutes of free fall, her plane fragment landed on a stand of flexible birch trees that cushioned the impact. Larisa suffered a concussion, a broken arm and rib and some spinal injuries.

Despite all her injuries, Larisa managed to walk. She took shelter on piece of the fuselage and survived two days drinking water from nearby puddles. She couldn’t even eat berries because the fall had knocked many of her teeth off. Then she found a pack of cigarettes and matches, and began to smoke. It was in this condition that Larisa was discovered by rescuers— sitting on a chair and smoking.

The Soviet government tried to keep the plane collision a secret. Soviet newspapers were forbade from writing anything about the catastrophe. Larisa’s survival was described as a glider accident. It wasn’t until twenty years later, she was allowed to speak freely about her ordeal. She was paid only 75 Soviet rubles ($20) compensation by Aeroflot.


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