Belmont Club

The Men Who Fell To Earth

It must be one of the most exclusive clubs on earth.  Wikipedia lists five people who have fallen from airplanes without parachutes and survived. Each is a proof that unlikely events happen. They appear to fall into two categories. The first is World War 2 bomber crewmen and the second is women who fall out of passenger jets.

That there should have been survivors among World War 2 bomber crewmen is probably the result of a huge sample size. Thousands of airmen fell from the skies in that great conflict. Inevitably some of those by incredible luck would come off alive.

Ivan Chisov was a navigator on a Soviet Airforce Ilyushin Il-4 bomber. German fighters shot down his plane at 23,000 feet and “with the battle still raging around him, Lt. Chisov intentionally did not open his parachute… however, due to the thin atmosphere at that altitude, he lost consciousness on the way down and was unable to pull the rip cord.” He hit the edge of a snowy ravine at an estimated speed of somewhere between 120 and 150 miles per hour and was back flying in three months.

Alan Magee survived a 22,000 foot fall from his B-17 in 1943. On his 7th mission German fighters shot off his bomber’s wing. “Magee fell over four miles before crashing through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station. Somehow the glass roof mitigated Magee’s impact and rescuers found him still alive on the floor of the station. … Magee was liberated in May 1945 and received the Air Medal for meritorious conduct and the Purple Heart. After the war Magee earned his pilot’s license and enjoyed flying. He worked in the airline industry in a variety of roles. He retired in 1979 and moved to northern New Mexico.”

Nicholas Alkemade was in a Lancaster raiding Berlin in 1944 when a JU-88 night fighter shot his plane down. “He fell 18,000 feet (5,500 m) to the ground below. His fall was broken by pine trees and a soft snow cover on the ground. He was able to move his arms and legs and suffered only a sprained leg.”

The women had equally remarkable stories. Two women fell from the highest and lowest heights respectively.  Unlike the bomber pilots, it is hard to ascribe the monopoly of women survivors in this category to anything but random probability.

Vesna Vulović, was a Serbian Flight attendant on JAT 367. A bomb in the front baggage compartment of the plane blew up the airliner and she found herself falling from 33,000 feet. She was in a coma for 27 days, which in the circumstances, is understandable. “She claims she has no fear of flying, which she attributes to the loss of memory of the crash, and she even enjoys watching movies with plane crashes.”

Equally tough was Juliane Koepcke. It’s true she fell from a mere 10,000 feet. She was “the sole survivor of 93 passengers and crew in the 24 December 1971, crash of LANSA Flight 508…  in the Peruvian rainforest. After her airliner broke up in midair, she survived after falling about 3 km (~10,000 feet) still strapped to her airliner seat, before the seat crashed through the rainforest canopy and came to rest on the forest floor.”  Having reached the ground she got up to look for survivors.

Her first priority [upon coming to] was to find her mother, who had been seated next to her on the plane but her search was unsuccessful. With her eyeglasses lost and one eye swollen shut, she struggled to no avail. She later found out her mother had initially survived the crash as well, but died several days later due to her injuries.

Then she walked out of the jungle.

Koepcke found some sweets which were to become her only food on her trip. After looking for her mother and other passengers, she was soon able to locate a small stream. She then waded through knee-high water downstream from her landing site, relying on the survival principle her father had taught her, that tracking downstream should eventually lead to civilization.

To a certain extent the height from which all these fell was equalized by terminal velocity.  A skydiver belly down to earth will reach 122 mph, less if he has a higher drag coefficient, more if he’s slick. Maybe Juliane Koepcke was helped in part by being strapped to her seat, which may have created a higher drag and lessened the speed of her descent.

One person, Norman Cyril Jackson, who almost made the Terminal Velocity club, reached the earth with the scant aid of a burning parachute. He won the Victoria Cross in 1944 by clambering outside the wing of his burning Lancaster and attempting to put out the fire from outside the plane.

Having bombed the target, Jackson’s Lancaster (serial ME669) was attacked by a German night fighter and a fuel tank in the starboard wing caught fire. Jackson, already wounded from shell splinters, strapped on a parachute and equipped himself with a fire extinguisher before climbing out of the aircraft and onto the wing, whilst the aeroplane was flying at 140 miles per hour (230 km/h), in order to put out the fire. He gripped the air intake on the leading edge of the wing with one hand, and fought the fire with the other. The flames seared his hands, face, and clothes. The fighter returned and hit the bomber with a burst of gunfire that sent two bullets into his legs. The burst also swept him off the wing.

He fell 20,000 feet (6,100 m), but his smouldering and holed parachute worked well enough to save his life. He suffered further injuries upon landing, including a broken ankle, but managed to crawl to a nearby German village the next morning, where he was paraded through the street.

Jackson received his VC at Buckingham Palace in the same ceremony as Leonard Cheshire who insisted Jackson precede him out sheer awe for his feat.

There is almost nothing one can add to these stories, simply because they are so seemingly miraculous as to defy a rational narrative. One can only say, “it happened,” and leave it at that. But I will add one postscript. Last Christmas I met a man who had helped an Australian family find a treatment for a child suffering from extremely rare form of cancer in one of the less than half dozen facilities in the world that could do it.

“It was at the Danny Thomas foundation hospital. Do you know it?”

I confessed I did not. But later I looked up the hospital. It was the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and there’s an interesting story attached to it.

As a “starving actor,” Thomas had made a vow: If he found success, he would open a shrine dedicated to St Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes. Thomas never forgot his promise to St. Jude, and after becoming a successful actor in the early 1950s, his wife joined him and began traveling the United States to help raise funds to build his dream – St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He fervently believed that “no child should die in the dawn of life.” With help from Dr. Lemuel Diggs and close friend, Anthony Abraham, an auto magnate in Miami, Florida, Thomas founded the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee in 1962. Since its inception, St. Jude has treated children from all 50 states and around the world, continuing the mission of finding cures and saving children. Dr. Peter C. Doherty of St. Jude’s Immunology Department, was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1996 for key discoveries on how the immune system works to kill virus-infected cells.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps miracles happened all the time. They must since rare events do occur in their due probability, as everyone knows. What we regard as a “miracle” is the perception of these rare events. We mostly don’t see them. But sometimes it registers, it makes the news when we notice the billion-to-one shot come off; when report comes to us of extraordinary bravery; when we see a pledge fulfilled or hear of strangers helping a child in rural Australia for no apparent reason. Rare events happen and in them that we most clearly see the pivot; through them we most dramatically visualize a possible turn of events.

We think we lead ordinary lives, but as someone observed humanity’s existence itself is so improbable as to be ludicrous, a circumstance summarized as the anthropic principle. Perhaps the world is not only stranger than we think, but stranger than we can know.  Sparrows to fall to earth all the time;  what we regard as ridiculous is that anyone should notice, that any one in particular should count.  But if all of them, perhaps every single one, is actually special then there are no ordinary events, just a poverty of perception. A pointless universe is in many ways a much simpler model than one in which we each play some unknown but important part. That opens many more mysteries than living in a mere fabric of noise. Juliane Koepcke wrote, “the thought ‘Why was I the only survivor?’ haunts me. It always will.”

Maybe we count for something after all, and that’s a scary thing to think.

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