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"If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you" - Arthur McAuliff
What can you do if you slip off the scaffolding 10 stories above the ground or, worse yet, if your parachute fails during a skydive? The odds are not on your side. Is it possible to survive a free-fall from 50, 250, or 25,000 feet above the ground? The answer is yes. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of people who have fallen from such heights and lived to tell the tale. While most of it comes down to luck, there are ways you can influence your velocity, the duration of your deceleration, and the distribution of the impact forces upon your body, and ultimately increase your chance of survival.
The arch position
The arch position
Slow down your fall. Unless you're falling from an airplane, you won't have enough time to try this step. Maximize your surface area by spreading yourself out. Use skydiving technique to stabilize yourself: position yourself so that the front of your body faces the ground; arch your back and pelvis and tilt your head back like you're trying to touch the back of your head to the back of your legs; extend your arms so that your upper arms are straight out to the sides, and bend your elbows at a 90 degree angle so that your lower arms and hands point forward (parallel to, and on the sides of, your head) with your palms facing down; spread your legs to shoulder width, and bend your knees slightly.
2. Find the best landing spot. This step can only be performed if falling from an airplane. For very high falls, the surface on which you land is the greatest influence on your chance of survival. Observe the terrain below you as you are falling. Hard, inflexible surfaces such as concrete are the worst on which to fall. Very uneven or jagged surfaces, which present less surface area to distribute the force of impact, are also undesirable. The best possible surfaces on which to fall are snow, deep water (preferably water that is fast moving or frothy, such as the kind found at the bottom of a waterfall; see Warnings), soft ground (such as that in a newly tilled field or in a marsh), and trees or thick vegetation (although these present a high risk of impalement). If you are over an urban area, you probably won't be able to control your flight precisely enough to choose a good landing surface, but glass- or tin-roofed structures, awnings, and cars are preferable to streets and concrete rooftops.
U.S. soldiers performing a free-fall.
U.S. soldiers performing a free-fall.
Steer yourself to the landing spot. If you're falling from an airplane, you will usually have about 1-3 minutes before impact, depending on your starting altitude. You will also have the ability to travel horizontally (while, obviously, traveling vertically) a good distance (up to a couple of miles). From the arch position described above, you can direct your flight forward by pulling your arms slightly back at the shoulders (so that they are not extended forward as much) and straightening (extending) your legs. You can move backward by extending your arms and bending your knees as though you are trying to touch the back of your head with your heels. Right turns may be accomplished while staying in the arch position by twisting your upper body slightly to the right (dipping your right shoulder), and left turns are performed by dipping the left shoulder.
4. Bend your knees. Possibly nothing is more important to surviving a fall (or simpler to do) than bending your knees. Research has shown that having one's knees bent at impact can reduce the magnitude of impact forces 36-fold.
5. Relax. Relaxing during a long fall—especially as you near the ground—is easier said than done, but try anyway. If your muscles are tense, your body will transfer force more directly to your vital organs. Studies of long-fall survivors have shown that those who reported being relaxed suffered, on average, far less severe injuries than those who reported being panicked or tense. It has also been shown that people who jump intentionally and those who are intoxicated at the time of the fall have disproportionately higher survival rates than fall victims in general. While the reason for these higher survival rates is unclear, one likely explanation is that people who are drunk or who actually want to die may be more relaxed before and upon impact. One way to remain (relatively) calm is to focus on performing the steps and being aware of your body. Doing so gives you something else to think about besides impending death.
6. Land feet-first. No matter what height you fall from, you should always try to land on your feet. While landing feet-first concentrates the impact force (in pounds per square inch) on a small area, it also allows your feet and legs to absorb the worst of the impact. If you are in any other position, try to right yourself before you hit the ground (fortunately, attaining the feet-first position seems to be an instinctive reaction). Keep your feet and legs tightly together so that both your feet hit the ground at the same time.
7. Land on the balls of your feet! Point your toes slightly down before impact so that you will land on the balls of your feet. This will allow your lower body to more effectively absorb the impact.
8. Protect your head on the bounce. When you fall from a great height onto land, you will usually bounce. Some people who survive the initial impact (often with a feet-first landing) suffer a fatal injury on their second impact. Cover your head with your arms. One technique for doing so is to put your arms on the sides of your head with your elbows facing forward (and projecting in front of your face) and your fingers laced behind your head or neck. This covers a large portion of your head, but obviously not all of it. If you have time to get an indication of which way you're bouncing (and hence which part of your head you're likely to hit), you can quickly adjust your arms to cover that part of your head.
9. Control the orientation of your body on the bounce. As you would expect, mortality is highest when the initial point of impact is the head. Mortality declines (in this order) when the point of impact is ventral (the front of the body), dorsal (back of the body), lateral (side of the body), and feet-first. Assuming you succeed in taking the brunt of the initial impact feet-first, you should try to control your body upon initial impact and during the bounce so that you land on your side or back on the second impact. Ideally, you should twist your hips to one side or the other immediately upon initial impact. At much lower velocities (such as those experienced with a proper parachute-assisted landing), this motion will help you distribute the force first through your legs, then through your buttocks and shoulder. In reality, you will be going as much as five or six times faster than you would with a parachute and your control over your body's motion will be severely limited. The key is to stay aware of your body and your surroundings and, even in midair on the bounce, try to get your body to land first on your legs or side.
10. Get medical help immediately. With all the adrenaline flowing in response to your flight, you may not even feel injured upon landing. Even if you are not visibly injured, you may have sustained fractures or internal injuries that must be treated immediately. No matter how you're feeling, get to a hospital as quickly as possible.
* Water landings are best done landing feet-first with legs tight together and arms extended straight above your head, while leaning back very slightly. Leaning back helps to reduce forced unnatural movement of the neck and the amount of water that will rush up your nose. If in doubt, you basically want to be as straight vertical as possible. There is some disagreement on whether, when entering water from a very high fall, your feet should be flat or you should point your toes down. Pointing your toes down serves to minimize the surface area of your body that comes into contact with the water, thus minimizing the effect of surface tension. Going in with your feet flat, however, may better concentrate the initial impact on your lower body. A similar point can be made if entering the water head-first: pointing your fingers straight above your head (actually below your head since you're upside-down) reduces surface tension, while flattening your palms against the water (again, above your head) creates a "shadow" that may serve to protect your head a bit. For very high falls, proper diving technique (that is, head-first entry) should not be used because it will be nearly impossible for an untrained diver to correctly execute at such high speeds. You will travel quite deep into the water, so try to keep your wits about you and quickly swim toward the surface (look for light). When you enter the water you will create a path of bubbles which may be followed as they float up towards the surface. If there is no light, follow the bubbles.
* It can be argued that you will be traveling so quickly you won't have time to adjust your position at impact or during the bounce. This may or may not be so. Research has indicated that in high-stress situations such as a free-fall, your perception of time may be slowed significantly, possibly even enough to consciously perform movements that you would ordinarily not have enough "subjective time" to do. In other words, you can think faster.
* Choose a large landing spot. Unless you have substantial skydiving experience, you will probably not be able to steer with much precision. While it might be great to steer yourself so that you land on a large pile of mattresses, you will probably not be able to identify small targets from great heights, and you will almost certainly not be able to guide yourself to them. Your primary goal should be to steer yourself away from particularly undesirable surfaces.
* Skydiving turns are not easy to perform without practice, and you may find yourself flipping and spinning wildly at some point in your flight. Try to regain stability by going into the arch position. If nothing else, the stability will help you to remain somewhat calm.
* If you are in an arch position while falling from an airplane, try to get your body vertical well before you hit the ground so that you don't get caught in some other position at impact (as a guide, keep in mind that at 1,000 feet, depending on your velocity, you have about 6-10 seconds before impact). As far as your chances of survival, the benefits of a feet-first landing will generally outweigh the increase in velocity that will occur when you switch from the arch to the feet-first position.
* Good physical condition and youth seem to positively influence free-fall survival rates. You can't change your age, but if you're looking for yet another reason to get in shape, here it is.
* If choosing to land in water, it is important to understand that unless the water is quite deep and you land feet-first with your body nearly vertical, water will cushion you about as much as concrete. In addition, if you survive the impact, you may be severely injured and/or unconscious, and thus the risk of drowning is high.
* Neither the authors nor wikiHow endorse attempting a long free-fall. The procedures outlined here, even if executed perfectly, cannot guarantee survival of a fall from heights, and your chances of surviving such a fall are slim, at best. In fact, no procedure has been proven consistently effective to survive such falls without the use of a parachute or other protective equipment. This is because:
o It is not possible to perform adequate scientifically controlled experiments to find out how the human body reacts to very high falls (though simulations have been attempted);
o It is almost never possible to determine the exact circumstances of any given case of a fall that has already occurred, let alone a statistically meaningful sample of many cases; and
o People very seldom survive falls from heights of 100 feet or more, and mortality is high even at heights of 20-30 feet. It is always best not to fall at all.