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How would a person survive a free fall from ~30,000 feet? (30k ft is approximately the average altitude of a commercial airliner, I would assume the average person would not go any higher)

At this altitude, you would be falling at terminal velocity which is ~120 mph. There are various variables that come into play which are essential to surviving a fall at this height (the free fall doesn't kill you, the sudden stop does) however for the sake of this question let's assume:

  • The person is 5'6 ft and weighs 145lbs.
  • There is no parachute or anything that will reduce the speed of the initial fall.
  • The person will land feet first with knees slightly bent. (As this position would increase survivability)
  • This free fall can occur anywhere on Earth.
  • This person is rather lucky.
  • This person has to survive however life changing injuries are acceptable in this scenario.
  • A medium to break the fall on the way down is ideal. For example, a tree or a very big pile of fresh snow.
  • This is a "freak" accident. Ground preparation is not possible nor wearing of proper gear such as a wing suit.

I would like to know the scenarios that can/have to occur for someone to fall and survive at ~30k ft. I've read many stories about people surviving falls at or close to this height. For example, a tree breaking the fall is one scenario. Please come up with other scenarios if possible.

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    $\begingroup$ 20' bank of recently fallen snow. Wave arms in circular patter. Flatten body along the horizon to increase air resistance. Pray. $\endgroup$ – Ranger Sep 13 '16 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Nex Terren Can you put this into an answer with more concrete facts/sources? $\endgroup$ – NuWin Sep 13 '16 at 2:40
  • $\begingroup$ virtually you can die from any height and survive from any height, it all depends luck $\endgroup$ – user24999 Sep 13 '16 at 11:23
  • $\begingroup$ This has no apparent application to the construction of a world; instead, it focuses on a specific event experienced by a specific individual as a plot point to your story, which isn't the purpose of Worldbuilding SE. $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Sep 13 '16 at 19:13
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Vesna Vulovic sadly wasn't a free fall survivor, she was found within a crashed plane, pinned under a trolley. Increased air resistance of large pieces of plane means it probably didn't reach terminal velocity of a free falling human.

Perhaps a better example would be Ivan Chisov who survived a 23,000ft free fall during World War II. He survived by hitting the side of a deep, snowy ravine a terminal velocity and sliding to the bottom.

Although this isn't the specified 30,000 feet, it's high enough (I think) to fulfil the physiological conditions of a fall at extreme height.

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  • $\begingroup$ The 30,000 feet in my question is based on the assumption that it is the highest point an average human being would go to. Although it wouldn't really matter how high, you can virtually die falling at 0 ft. The article you provided is interesting though +1. $\endgroup$ – NuWin Sep 13 '16 at 7:20
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Stunts and other successful attempts:


Other possibilities include steep embankment after a rain. So slick, muddy slide to a stop.

Water is a no go. The human body hitting water at 120mph is roughly equivalent to hitting concrete.

However I remember a report of a suicide jumper hitting the water feet first like a pencil dive and surviving. From what I remember hearing, the jumper's shoes basically exploded off his feet. I do not believe this is the same account, but is one of them. The article states the impact velocity was about 75mph, so little more than half of terminal velocity.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the answer! I forgot to add that this is a "freak" accident. Ground and attire preparation is not possible. I have edited my question. I also saw the video of the guy free falling into the big net on YouTube already. That is also an interesting article. $\endgroup$ – NuWin Sep 13 '16 at 2:35
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I shall quote myself from another answer here:

Actually, you can survive the fall, no matter from how high. In air, a human being has a maximum reachable velocity due to air friction. I am not 100% sure, but i think you already reach that if jumping from a 10-story-building or something like that. And impact to the ground with that velocity - can be survived.

If you hit muddy, soft ground (NOT water). And have a sh**ton of luck.

In fact several skydivers have jumped out of airplanes, their parachutes malfunctioning, and survived the fall. (See this link: Wikipedia Page)

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  • $\begingroup$ Is there an estimate of how deep the muddy ground has to be or it doesn't matter? $\endgroup$ – NuWin Sep 13 '16 at 7:31
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it needs to be very deep. A field after a strong rain should suffice. But honestly, i don't think there is strict guidelines for this ;) $\endgroup$ – Andreas Heese Sep 13 '16 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ Well of course and for the same reason there isn't a how to survive a fall from ~30k ft and survive tutorial :) I figure luck has a lot to do with your survival but there also has to be some mathematical or scientific explanation. $\endgroup$ – NuWin Sep 13 '16 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ For landing on level ground, the only advice is to land flat on the back, face up. It is least physiologically vulnerable position. Force of impact is distributed as much as possible, neck, eyes/sinuses (nose down can cause the bridge to collapse into the brain cavity, eye sockets provide a conduit to brain impalement) and spine are oriented to prevent them from completely shattering, causing severe damage to the central nervous system. Internal organs will bruise. Ribs will snap. The skull will remain intact if the surface absorbs enough of the force, but serious concussion will occur. $\endgroup$ – Nolo Sep 13 '16 at 9:47
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    $\begingroup$ Also worth noting, it takes about 10-14 seconds of free fall to achieve terminal velocity. The physics is complicated, but this roughly corresponds to distances from 1200 - 1800 feet. answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=124248 $\endgroup$ – Nolo Sep 13 '16 at 10:07
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Here is the historical example for an accident, Vesna Vulović. So what does that tell us?

  • It was random chance. Many others in a similar situation died.
  • The survivor suffered severe injuries.
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  • $\begingroup$ I've read about that story already. $\endgroup$ – NuWin Sep 13 '16 at 6:55
  • $\begingroup$ @NuWin, then why did you ask your question? $\endgroup$ – o.m. Sep 13 '16 at 7:10

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