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Yeah I'm free, free fallin'
July 2, 2009 6:58 PM   Subscribe

"Suddenly there was this amazing silence. The plane was gone. I must have been unconscious and then came to in midair. I was flying, spinning through the air... Over 37 years ago Juliane Koepcke survived a two mile free fall, landing virtually unscathed in the middle of the rainforest. But that wasn't the end of her ordeal. She spent ten days in the juggle before finding rescue.

Think that's amazing? There have been others (about 1/4 of the way down):
1. "Lieutenant I. M. Chisov of the former Soviet Union was flying his Ilyushin 4 on a bitter cold day in January 1942, when it was attacked by 12 German Messerschmitts. Convinced that he had no chance of surviving if he staged with his badly battered plane, Chisov bailed out at 21,980 feet. With the fighters still buzzing around, Chisov cleverly decided to fall freely out of the arena. It was his plan not to open his chute until he was down to only 1000 ft above the ground. Unfortunately, he lost consciousness en route. As luck would have it, he crashed at the edge of a steep ravine covered with 3 ft of snow. Hitting at about 120 mi/h, he plowed along its slope until he came to rest at the bottom. Chisov awoke 20 min later, bruised and sore, but miraculously he had suffered only a concussion of the spine and a fractured pelvis. Three and one-half months later he was back at work as a flight instructor." Hecht, Eugene. Physics: Calculus. 2nd ed. United States: Brooks/Cole, 2000. p 85

2. Flight Sergeant Nicholas Steven Alkemade was on a bombing mission over Germany on 23 March 1944 when his Lancaster bomber flying at 18,000 feet was blazed apart and in flames when he was forced to jump, without a parachute or be burned to death. He dove out of his destroyed aircraft hoping on a quick death. His speed accelerated to over 120 miles per hour and he impacted on a snow covered sloping forest. He was completely uninjured and later captured by the Germans who refused to believe his story. (www.urbanlegends.com/death)

3. The longest survivable fall, 26 January 1972, was Vesna Vulovic a stewardess in a DC-9 which blew up at 33,330 feet. She was in the tail section of the aircraft and though injured survived the fall.
Want to top them all? Here's how to survive a fall from 35,000 feet. (previously)

And, lastly, how about having this Tom Petty song stuck in your head the rest of the evening.
posted by Autarky (45 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Welcome to the juggle, we got fun 'n games
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 7:01 PM on July 2, 2009 [25 favorites]


An accident investigation later found that one of the fuel tanks of the Lockheed Electra had been hit by a bolt of lightning which had torn the right wing off.

Gee, where have I heard this before? ... ah yes, Braniff Flight 542, an Electra that went down between Dallas and Houston after the outboard wing broke off. I wonder how much this had to do with the South American crash 12 years later.
posted by crapmatic at 7:03 PM on July 2, 2009


Herzog made a TV doco about Koepcke called "Wings of Hope". It's great - Koepcke revisits the site of the crash and more or less retraces her path out of the jungle. There's a small YouTube clip here
posted by bunglin jones at 7:13 PM on July 2, 2009 [3 favorites]


It must be absolutely unreal to wake up to something like falling, or being underwater, or being in an avalanche, or a fire, or an earthquake or a stampede, or a bear attack, or a flooding, or a police raid (or an army raid), or a....
posted by Corduroy at 7:18 PM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


I almost got out of this thread without getting the Tom Petty song in my head. Then I just had to glance at the title. Now that #$@% song is going to be stuck in my head all night.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 7:21 PM on July 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Koepke's story still amazes me. Not just that she survived that fall, but the way she had to make herself check corpses to verify whether or not any of them were her mother. I can see someone not really being the same after that.

Weightless Again.

Falling.
posted by maudlin at 7:27 PM on July 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


I remember seeing the same photo of Vesna Vulovic in several editions of the Guinness Book of World Records. Wacky thing to be famous for something you have absolutely no memory of.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:32 PM on July 2, 2009


Love some Handsome Family, there, maudlin. Points!
posted by sadiehawkinstein at 8:01 PM on July 2, 2009


Thanks for this. I vividly remember seeing the movie based on this when I was a child. I've just tried to find it on the IMDB. Must have been this dubbed into English? I can still picture in my mind the scenes of her falling, strapped into her seat, and the knowledge that saved her "He said if you find a creek, follow it because that will lead to a stream and a stream will lead to a bigger river and that's where you'll find help.", squeezing maggots out of a wound on her back & finally finding the hut & being rescued. Incredible.
posted by goshling at 8:02 PM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


How do you kill a circus?

Go for the juggler.
posted by brevator at 8:13 PM on July 2, 2009 [13 favorites]


I remember this! It was made into a movie. "The Stewardess Who Fell to Earth" starring David Bowie.
posted by storybored at 8:17 PM on July 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


Interesting stories. Notice, though, that it really doesn't matter how far the fall is once you're high enough to reach your terminal velocity of about 120mph. My back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that once you're above 20,000 feet, you're not going to accelerate that much further.
posted by The White Hat at 8:18 PM on July 2, 2009


Thank you for this post. For 38 years I have wondered and thought about Juliane Koepcke. I hoped she was well and I'm glad to hear she is. I didn't remember her name until reading the article you linked. Her story of survival remained vividly in my memory all these many years.

In the story written almost 4 decades ago, it described the rain forest maggots as big as asparagus heads coming out of the wounds she had on her arms. It was one of those revolting metaphors that branded itself on my brain and, unfortunately, occasionally intrude when I cooked asparagus. Perhaps I've confounded nightmares but I seem to recall that she actually ate the maggots for their protein.

Personal anecdote: I was walking home in India after a friend's party, having had too much to drink, and fell over a very steep wall, head first onto a pile of branches arranged for firewood. What should have at least poked out an eye or two, impaled me or left me brain dead, did no damage at all. (Or maybe it did, lol) Guess it was springy? But the next day when I went to look where I fell, I gasped in horror.

This is the most incredible falling story I've ever heard of, 32,000 feet. Totally surreal.

It always amazes me when people have really long falls and come out relatively unscathed. It's so illogical and improbable.

Will read this and this and this before taking the next flight.
posted by nickyskye at 8:30 PM on July 2, 2009 [7 favorites]


If I were falling from two miles up the Tom Petty song that would be stuck in my mind would be Learning to Fly.
posted by twoleftfeet at 8:36 PM on July 2, 2009 [4 favorites]


Going Down?
posted by Xoebe at 8:46 PM on July 2, 2009


What the hell is a concussion of the spine?
posted by ErWenn at 8:53 PM on July 2, 2009


Very cool post. Oddly, my friends and I were talking just last night about how we would choose to die if the world really worked that way. Yeah, I know it's a little nuts, but doesn't everyone think about that? I choose death-by-airliner. Preferably in mid-flight.

I decided at about 8 years old that I would be happiest go by way of a free-fall, and I've never changed my mind. I love aircraft like nobody's bidness, and going down in a plane is something I think about a lot, actually. I would love to know exactly what it's like, up close and personal, when a plane breaks apart in the air. I'd surely be freaking out as much as the next guy, but I also welcome the chance - just before death - to find out exactly how much freakout I can take. I'd want to experience that last few seconds, seeing the ground rush up to meet me. Living through it though? I dunno, man. The pain, the maiming, all the other bodies, the PTSD -- that would seriously suck. And I wouldn't last five minutes in a damn jungle. I'd scare myself to death before the wildlife got me. I get the willies just thinking about it.

But a nice, long, windy, adrenaline-fueled flying experience would be juuuuust right. My friends say they'll never fly with me, ever again, now fearing that I may be secretly hoping for such an event. Heh. Skeerdy cats. You have to go somehow, and it'd be a damn sight better than being taken out by gunfire or dying in my sleep. I'm sure your mileage varies wildly.
posted by heyho at 9:00 PM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
-Douglas Adams
posted by Octoparrot at 9:41 PM on July 2, 2009 [1 favorite]


Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.
-Douglas Adams


Isn't that orbiting?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:48 PM on July 2, 2009 [12 favorites]


Note to self: do not fly with heyho.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:51 PM on July 2, 2009


"Koepcke says she is not a spiritual person and has tried to find logical explanations for why she survived."

No atheists in foxholes, indeed.

I don't get the "sudden silence." There's a helluva lot of wind noise at any speed above ~60kmh.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:54 PM on July 2, 2009


Nah, the relevant Tom Petty song is "You Got Lucky."
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:18 PM on July 2, 2009


Fake.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:28 PM on July 2, 2009


I decided at about 8 years old that I would be happiest go by way of a free-fall, and I've never changed my mind. I love aircraft like nobody's bidness, and going down in a plane is something I think about a lot, actually. I would love to know exactly what it's like, up close and personal, when a plane breaks apart in the air. I'd surely be freaking out as much as the next guy, but I also welcome the chance - just before death - to find out exactly how much freakout I can take.

That's about how I feel about the subject. I went skydiving with a bunch of friends once and it was amazing. I did a tandem jump with an instructor, so I was pretty much guaranteed to make it down uninjured, but I want to learn to go solo. I'd probably wait until the absolute last second before pulling the cord, every time.
posted by spitefulcrow at 11:16 PM on July 2, 2009


I don't get the "sudden silence."

Perhaps her eardrums were burst?

I raised an eyebrow over "...she survived with only minor injuries. Her collarbone was broken..."
posted by Phanx at 11:47 PM on July 2, 2009


I assumed the sudden silence was a reference to her falling unconscious. In my experience of coming out of traumatic unconsciousness (admittedly a data point of one), one of the things you notice is hearing your surroundings again.
posted by moonbiter at 1:31 AM on July 3, 2009


I don't get the "sudden silence." There's a helluva lot of wind noise at any speed above ~60kmh.

I would imagine that compared to the sound of a plane breaking up, the sudden sound of you, by yourself, with only the wind rushing through your ears would be pretty quiet by comparison.

I've jumped from 11,000 feet. The loudest part is the plane door opening, not you being in the air without it.
posted by vernondalhart at 1:43 AM on July 3, 2009


I raised an eyebrow over "...she survived with only minor injuries. Her collarbone was broken..."

I imagine that when you fall to earth from over a mile and a half up, anything short of your spleen spontaneously ejecting itself through your rib cage is going to look pretty minor.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:26 AM on July 3, 2009 [6 favorites]


This is incredible. When I read the first line of the FPP, I opened it thinking this would be a post about nightmares, dreams, night terrors, etc. Reading her story and realizing it was REAL made me hope this very interesting FPP gets knocked off the front page fast enough that my already flying-phobic husband doesn't read it.

But WOW.
posted by bunnycup at 5:59 AM on July 3, 2009


Really incredible stories. I guess it's true that it's not how far you fall — it's how and where you land. A former roommate's father fell off the bottom rung of a ladder and screwed up his right heel so badly he was on crutches for months and will have problems with it for the rest of his life.

I've craved the experience of a long-lasting free fall ever since I can remember. Not willing to bungee jump or jump out of a plane, though, so I'm thinking that's a dream destined to remain a dream.
posted by orange swan at 6:18 AM on July 3, 2009


A couple of years ago, a guy named Michael Holmes had canopy failure and survived... Here's video.
posted by hypersloth at 6:23 AM on July 3, 2009


These are amazing.

About the sound of rushing air, though, it reminds me of my first (tandem) instructional hang glide, where my instructor insisted that we practice a stall and recovery (*gulp*). You don't notice the rush of air in your ears -- until it's gone.

And of course, what others said about the sound of air relative to just-disintegrated airplane noises, too. A slightly more traumatic version of the "just left the club" effect.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 6:57 AM on July 3, 2009


I don't believe this is possible, and with that in mind I have a great suggestion for Adam Savage's next intern.
posted by rokusan at 7:08 AM on July 3, 2009


Vesna Vulovic a stewardess in a DC-9 which blew up at 33,330 feet.

Okay, come on. Vesna Vulovic?

That's either a Bond girl or a Stan Lee superhero.
posted by rokusan at 7:09 AM on July 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


A slightly more traumatic version of the "just left the club" effect.

A masterful understatement, that.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:49 AM on July 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Stories like this always motivate me to talk to people and get to know their stories, because everybody's got one, no matter how unlikely.

There's no way you look at this person and imagine her uttering the words "Sometimes I would see a crocodile on the bank and it would start into the water towards me, but I was not afraid. I knew crocodiles don't tend to attack humans."

Badass fucking libriarian, is all.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:10 AM on July 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


What the hell is a concussion of the spine?

Possibly referring to spinal shock.
posted by Pantalaimon at 8:12 AM on July 3, 2009


What the hell is a concussion of the spine?

Possibly referring to spinal shock.

Or severe whiplash.
posted by elfgirl at 8:28 AM on July 3, 2009


I don't get the "sudden silence." There's a helluva lot of wind noise at any speed above ~60kmh.

I don't know why, but that's definitely something that happens after a traumatic impact. I remember being in a car crash, and how right up to the moment of the collision, there was all sorts of noise, tires squealing, honking-- but then there was total silence, surreal silence, where there should have been many noises: crashing, crunching metal, the airbag inflating, etc Noise didn't return until I was lying in the street and people were asking me if I was okay.
posted by bookish at 8:57 AM on July 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ah. As in that chunk of the brain that filters input (I forget what its called) blocks hearing so that other, more important signals can get through, ie. things more important to not dying.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:12 AM on July 3, 2009


Autarky, you win. I had Tom Petty in my head all night long, and it even worked its way into my dream this morning. Luckily, I like that song.
posted by heyho at 9:29 AM on July 3, 2009


Wow, only one person mentioning the Herzog. It's a really interesting documentary, and I'm sure the writer of this article got his idea of interviewing her from it.
posted by Napierzaza at 9:31 AM on July 3, 2009


I remember reading a Reader's Digest condensed version of Juliane's story when I was a child. The maggots stood out for me too, but the bit that haunts me the most was the epilogue which said that when the wreckage was finally discovered it was evident that a number of other people had survived the crash - some for days - but had died awaiting rescue.
posted by andraste at 12:28 AM on July 4, 2009


"Flew poorly...landed well." -- not George Burns
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:19 PM on July 4, 2009


Addressing the silence aspect ... I did some jumping in the military, and my last jump was bad. I had a partial malfunction of the main (we used squares), and had opened pretty low (around 2000 feet). I had a small landing zone which I had planned to fly into, surrounded by forest.

I ended up with a partially opened reserve, hitting the trees with crossed legs. The last five or ten seconds were silent; at least, that's the way I remembered it after regaining consciousness in the hospital. I think it may be the brain shutting down; I knew, after 628 jumps, that #629 was gonna hurt.

I've jumped a few more times since then but have never again experienced the silence. Granted, going from metal being torn apart in an accident to clear skies would seem pretty quiet, and as vernondalhart said, the door opening is louder in any event.
posted by dwbrant at 11:38 AM on July 7, 2009


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