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The Mug Rack’s Survival Guide Part One: The 35k fall

January 30, 2010

I’ve thought about this every time I got on an airplane, not that I am scared to fly or anything. But I’ve always wanted to know if it was possible to survive a fall of this length. Popular Mechanics showed me how. It’s a longer article so I’ve posted some excerpts.

35,000 feet: You’re 6 miles up. You’re alone. You’re falling.

Oxygen is scarce at these heights. By now, hypoxia is starting to set in. You’ll be unconscious soon, and you’ll cannonball 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 6-mile plummet are extra ordinarily 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. That classification means you have the advantage of being attached to a chunk of the plane.

Whether you’re attached to crumpled 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—more as your speed increases. When downward force equals upward resistance, 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 1500 feet, about the same height as Chicago’s Sears (now Willis) Tower. Equal speed means you hit the ground with equal force. The difference is the clock. Body meets Windy City sidewalk in 12 seconds. From an airplane’s cruising altitude, you’ll have almost enough time to read this entire article.

22,o00 feet: 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, as Hamilton notes, “that it isn’t the fall that kills you—it’s the landing.”

Keeping your wits about you, you take aim.. 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. Snow? Absolutely. Swamps? With their mucky, plant-covered surface, even more awesome. Contrary to popular belief, water is an awful choice. Like concrete, liquid doesn’t compress. Hitting the ocean is essentially the same as colliding with a sidewalk.

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 maneuver.

No matter the surface, definitely don’t land on your head.

1000 feet: 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.

0 feet: The Ground: Impact. You’re alive. What next? If you’re lucky, you might find that your injuries are minor, stand up and smoke a celebratory cigarette.

There is a lot more than what’s listed here. More mathematical words and stuff. Check it out. But at least if you’re plane’s tail does pop off  you’ll have an idea of how to land on a haystack and survive.

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