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Free Fall

The Free Fall Research Page

Recommended Reading

Do you want to survive an Unplanned Freefall?
If so, check out these survival tips from David Carkeet.

Two great, but hard-to-find books
We highly recommend both of these books, but good luck finding them, they are difficult to come by:

  • Into the Silk: True Stories of the Caterpillar Club by Ian Mackersey, London, Robert Hale Ltd., 1956.

  • Jump for It!: Stories of the Caterpillar Club by Gerald Bowman, London, Evans Brothers Ltd., 1955.
Another book on the Caterpillar Club
Here's another book on the Caterpillar Club, though there's not much in it on falling it does include a great list of the early Caterpillar Club members:

  • Jump! Tales of the Caterpillar Club by Don Glassman, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1930
Another Important Reference
Subtitled "Incredible death-defying stories of survival against all odds," this book by John Adams describes a wide range of amazing survival stories. Pay special attention to the first 80 pages.

  • Dangling from the Golden Gate Bridge and Other Narrow Escapes by John Anthony Adams, New York, Ballantine Books, 1988.
They Fell Without Parachutes - And Lived!
Paul Brickhill, the author of "The Great Escape" wrote an article called "They Fell Without Parachutes - And Lived!" It appeared in the June 1950 issue of Blue Book magazine. Many thanks to William Contento and Mike Ashley for their help in locating this article for me. Brickhill was in prison camp with many aviators and spoke to Nicholas Alkemade, Joe Herman, and others about their experiences and recorded them in this article. This is likely the first published account of such stories. In regard to the Free Fall Research Page it is like the Rosetta Stone.

Note: It turns out that Brickhill covered this content earlier with the 1946 publication (with Conrad Norton) of the book, "Escape to Danger."

Human Survivability of Extreme Impacts in Free-Fall
For those of you who are interested in a scientific take on surviving falls from around 50 to 250 feet, you should look into the work of Richard G. Snyder. In the 1960s Snyder was the author or co-author of two interesting pieces of research:
  • Human Survivability of Extreme Impacts in Free-Fall
    (NTIS Publication AD425412)
  • Fatal Injuries Resulting from Extreme Water Impact
    (NTIS Publication AD688424)
Neither of these documents describes falls out of airplanes (there is a lot on suicidal jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge however), but they do have a connection to airplane accidents, as becomes clear from Mary Roach's book "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers." Roach describes Snyder's work because of its value in determining the cause of an airline disaster over deep water, where the only evidence that may be available are the recovered bodies of passengers.

Both of these articles are available from NTIS, the National Technical Information Service. If you are interested in purchasing either of these documents, NTIS can be reached at 800-553-6847 or www.ntis.gov.

Update: One of Dr. Snyder's studies is available in its entirely on the web. See Study of Impact Tolerance through Free-Fall Investigations (1977).

Hugh de Haven and Richard Snyder
IP Online, an international peer review journal for health professionals and others in injury prevention, has in its web-accessible database a 1942 study by Hugh de Haven called "Mechanical analysis of survival in falls from heights of fifty to one hundred and fifty feet." These folks didn't fall out of airplanes, in fact, it appears as if most jumped from apartment buildings. The writing is clinical and the subject is pretty gruesome, but de Haven's work takes the details from these sad tales of survival with the intent of using the knowledge gained to improve the survival chances of people in aircraft and automobile accidents.

De Haven's work was continued by Richard Snyder (see above) whose research entitled "Human Survivability of Extreme Impacts in Free-Fall" and "Fatal Injuries Resulting from Extreme Water Impact" are part of the body of research that helped in the development of seatbelts and airbags. Snyder's work first came to our attention in Mary Roach's book "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers." Roach describes Snyder's work because of its value in determining the cause of an airline disaster over deep water, where the only evidence that may be available are the recovered bodies of passengers. Their injuries may provide clues about the cause of the accident.

The de Haven study is overwhelming reading. When you are done reading you want to go outside and take a breath of air. It's not the kind of life's work that a typical person could face day-in/day-out. IP Online calls "Mechanical analysis..." an "Injury Classic." If you are interested in having a look, check out IP Online and search on "de Haven" to find de Haven's study.

Note: Tim Hoult wrote in to say "De Haven's work is incredibly important in the field of crash protection - it seemed to kickstart the industry into actually doing something. Even more amazing is the fact that he might not have been around to write it. He was the only survivor in a mid-air collision of two JN-4s several hundred feet above the ground in 1917 - his major internal injuries only being caused by, ironically, his seat belt buckle!"

The Experience of Falling
Who knew that there was research on the experience of falling? One of the earliest must have been Albert van St. Gallen Heim's 1892 treatise on "The Experience of Dying from Falls," which was translated into English quite some time later by a pair of researchers named Russell Noyes, Jr. and Roy Kletti. Noyes and Kletti wrote a number of scientific articles including:

  • Depersonalization in the Face of Life Threatening Danger (Psychiatry, Volume 39, February 1976)
  • Panoramic Memory: A Response to the Threat of Death (Omega, Volume 8 (3), 1977)
  • Subjective Response to Life Threatening Danger (Omega, Volume 9 (4), 1978-79)
Survivors, many of them fallers, experienced a feeling of detachment from their bodies, an altered perception of time, and a sense of depersonalization. There appears to be a whole science (or pseudoscience) of near-death experiences (known to the field as NDEs). Thanks to John Thackray for telling us about the work of Noyes and Kletti!

Books Written by Unlucky Skydivers
I guess if you survive a fall with a failed parachute, you feel like writing a book:

  • Golf God's Way by Gus Bernardoni, Carol Stream, Illinois, Creation House, 1978

  • Currahee! A Screaming Eagle at Normandy by Donald Burgett, New York, Dell, 2000 (paperback), originally published in 1967

  • The Kid Who Climbed Everest by Bear Grylls (also published under the title "Facing Up: A Remarkable Journey to the Summit of Mount Everest")

  • A Life in War and Peace by Brian Urquhart, New York, W.W. Norton, 1987

  • Duty, Country, Honor by George Day, Fort Walton Beach, FL, American Hero Press, 2002
Other Books
Some other interesting books:

  • Snakes in the Cockpit: Images of Military Aviation Disasters by L. Douglas Keeney, MBI Publishing, 2002. See page 108 for an interesting ejection photo sequence.

  • Ripley’s Believe It or Not Encyclopedia of the Bizarre Mentions several amazing survival stories related to falling from airplanes.

  • The Man Who Rode the Thunder by William H. Rankin, Prentice Hall, 1960. Rankin is the one who bailed out in a storm and had the ride of his life in his parachute.

  • Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales, W.W. Norton, 2003. Gonzales is the son of Federico Gonzales (see Wreckage Riders).

  • The Second-Luckiest Pilot: Adventures in Military Aviation by D.K. Tooker, Naval Institute Press, 2000. Tooker considers himself the second-luckiest pilot. The first-luckiest would be Cliff Judkins (see Other Amazing Stories).

  • Crash in the Jungle by Jim Alderson, Nelson Thornes, Ltd., 2001. This is a book for young readers about Juliane Koepcke's amazing fall into the Amazon jungle and her determined trek to survival (see Wreckage Riders).

  • Indestructible: The Unforgettable Story of a Marine Hero at Iwo Jima by Jack Lucas with D.K. Drum, Da Capo Press, 2006. As an Army paratrooper in the early 1960s Lucas survived a jump in which both of his parachutes failed. This story, however, is only a secondary reason for the title of his book. Lucas won a Medal of Honor as a Marine in World War II when he saved the lives of three of his fellow soldiers by covering two grenades with his body during the battle of Iwo Jima. He survived the subsequent explosion with serious injuries, but eventually recovered. Later in life his second wife conspired to kill him, but the plot was discovered before he came to any harm. Not entirely indestructible, Lucas died in 2008 at the age of 80.

  • People in Peril and How They Survived by multiple authors, Reader's Digest Association, 1983. This book, subtitled "86 True Dramas from the Pages of the Reader's Digest" is an excellent collecton that includes many stories of a free fall nature. In its pages are accounts about free faller Nicholas Alkemade, wreckage riders Juliane Koepcke and Pat Brophy, and lucky/unlucky skydiver William Rankin.
Poetry Corner
At least two important poems are based on stories of people who fell to their deaths from airplanes:

  • Falling: James Dickey's "Falling" describes the fall (and death) of a stewardess who was sucked out of an airliner when a door opened unexpectedly. The poem is based on an actual incident that occurred in Connecticut in October of 1962. The poem appears in Dickey's "Poems 1957-1967" as well as in "Falling, May Day, Sermon, and Other Poems" and in the anthology "The Whole Motion: Collected Poems 1945-1992." Check out the University of Illinois English department's web site for an interesting analysis of this poem.

  • Bailey...Who Burned?: "Bailey...Who Burned?" comes from MacKinlay Kantor's "Glory for Me," a full book in verse that was the basis for the movie "The Best Years of Their Lives." Both Kantor and William Wyler (who directed "The Best Years of Their Lives") spent time with the U.S. Eighth Air Force in England. Kantor's poem is based on an actual incident. When a burning B-17 bomber goes down and one airman pulls his ripcord too soon upon exiting the plane, his parachute catches on fire and he falls to his death. A navigator in the 305th Bomb Group was the "Bailey" described by Kantor. See Bailey . . . Who Burned? for the poem text and additional details.
Novels about Falling
Two novels with falling themes are of interest:

  • Flying Leap by Judy Budnitz (Picador, New York, 1998): Judy Budnitz's collection of short stories called "Flying Leap" is very good reading, with a lot of surprises and strong writing. The last lines of the story "Flight" will resonate with the readers of the Free Fall Research page: "The terror of falling is not the earth rushing up, smiling and effusive, to embrace you like an old friend you had hoped never to see again. Nor is it the fear of impact, the teeth-rattling jolt, like the violent thrust you close your eyes and brace yourself for in the night. It is the sense of betrayal, as you arch earthward like a shooting star and look down to see no one there waiting to catch you."

  • Falling Man by Don DeLillo (Scribner, New York, 2007): This memorable novel tells the story of a New York City man in the aftermath of 9/11 who having survived the collapse of the Twin Towers struggles with memory and loss and grief.

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