Falling from extreme heights and surviving is very rare, but some incredible stories have been documented of people surviving plummets from planes, buildings, bridges and more. Determining the highest fall ever survived is difficult since falls are not always measured precisely. However, based on accounts of miraculous survival stories, some of the highest falls on record include:
Vesna Vulović – 33,330 feet
On January 26, 1972, 22-year-old Vesna Vulović was working as a flight attendant on a Yugoslav Airlines DC-9 en route from Stockholm to Belgrade. At an altitude of 33,330 feet, a bomb planted by Croatian nationalists exploded onboard, tearing the plane apart mid-air. Vesna was tragically forced out of the plane without a parachute. She landed on a snow-covered mountainside, suffering a fractured skull, broken ribs, broken vertebrae and falling into a coma for 27 days. Incredibly, she survived the fall and eventually made a full recovery, earning her a Guinness World Record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute.
Nicholas Alkemade – 18,000 feet
Royal Air Force rear gunner Nicholas Alkemade survived a fall from his burning plane during World War II in 1944. His Avro Lancaster caught fire after being attacked over Germany. At an altitude of 18,000 feet, rather than being burnt alive, Alkemade jumped from the plane without a parachute. He fell through trees which cushioned his impact before landing in deep snow. He suffered a sprained leg, bruising and shock but escaped without any life-threatening injuries. According to Alkemade, he was saved by pine branches and soft snow covering the ground.
Ivan Chisov – 22,000 feet
Soviet Air Force Lieutenant Ivan Chisov ejected from his Ilyushin Il-4 bomber at an altitude of 22,000 feet in January 1942 after his plane was hit by German flak. He hit the edge of a snowy ravine, rolling down steeply forested terrain. Chislov was found unconscious several days later, having suffered severe injuries including spinal damage and a broken pelvis. However, the deep snowdrifts saved him from a quick demise, allowing him to recover and live until 1990 to tell the dramatic tale.
Alan Magee – 22,000 feet
American airman Alan Magee survived a jump from his damaged B-17 bomber in 1943 at an altitude of 20,000-22,000 feet. Magee did not have a parachute, and his bomber was spiraling down over France when he decided to take the deadly plunge rather than going down with the aircraft. He fell through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire rail station, which somewhat cushioned his fall. Though he broke nearly every bone in his body and was unconscious, he miraculously survived to become a POW. The German doctors who treated him were astonished he lived after witnessing his tremendous fall.
Juliane Koepcke – 10,000 feet
17-year-old Juliane Koepcke was flying over the Peruvian rainforest with her mother in 1971 when their plane was struck by lightning. The plane disintegrated in mid-air at an altitude of 10,000 feet. Juliane unexpectedly survived both the plane disintegration and the long fall by being attached to a row of seats which glided down through the trees. She awoke the next day on the jungle floor, miraculously alive but with an injured collarbone and cuts and bruises. She battled through 9 days alone in the jungle before safely encountering a group of lumberjacks.
Nicholas White – 50 feet
While maybe not the highest, one amazing survival story comes from New Yorker Nicholas White who plunged 50 feet down a dark elevator shaft in 1999. The walls closed in around him and he landed on top of the collapsed elevator. Though critically injured with a pelvis fracture and bleeding kidneys, he was trapped for an agonizing 40 hours until finally being rescued by fire fighters. His doctors were shocked at his survival given the tremendous impact from the long fall.
Though cadaver research shows humans can theoretically survive falls at terminal velocity under perfect conditions, real world cases with imperfect conditions that result in survival are exceedingly rare. The stories above represent some of the highest known falls that someone astonishingly managed to live through. Factors from snowy terrain and tree branches to proper positioning and pure luck contributed to saving the lives of these incredible fall survivors. Miraculously, the human body can occasionally endure tremendous blunt force trauma and rebound to tell the tale.
Key Facts and Statistics
- The highest survived accidental fall is Vesna Vulovic at 33,330 ft (10,160 m).
- Nicholas Alkemade survived falling 18,000 ft (5,500 m) without a parachute into snowy woods.
- Highest fall survived on purpose is stuntman Luke Aikens who jumped from 25,000 ft (7,620 m) in 2016.
- The Empire State Building is 1,250 ft (381 m) tall for reference.
- Free fall speed reaches an estimated 120 mph (190 km/h) by 1,500 ft (460 m).
- A fall at about 75 ft (23 m) is nearly always fatal if directly hitting the ground.
- Snow, tree branches and sloped hills help absorb impact and reduce injuries.
- World record highest dive from 172 ft (52 m) is equivalent to jumping from a 17 story building.
- Most people become unconscious on impact at about 150 ft (46 m).
- Body position and rolling on impact helps disperse energy and can possibly reduce trauma.
Notable People Who Survived Extreme Falls
|Name||Fall Height||Year||Survival Details|
|Vesna Vulovic||33,330 ft||1972||Fell into snowy mountainside in a plane explosion|
|Nicholas Alkemade||18,000 ft||1944||Fell into snowy woods from burning plane in WWII|
|Ivan Chisov||22,000 ft||1942||Fell into snowy ravine after ejecting from Soviet bomber|
|Alan Magee||20,000-22,000 ft||1943||Fell through glass roof of train station in France from damaged B-17|
As the data shows, many high fall survivors have benefited from landing in a snowy environment or having tree branches help slow their descent. The ability to absorb impact vs. hitting solid ground plays a large role in reducing fatal injuries at high altitudes.
Anatomy of Surviving Terminal Velocity
While the terminal velocity of a falling human body is around 120 mph, there are situations where people have survived going at such deadly speeds.
- Body position – Feet first generally allows for better shock absorption through the legs.
- Landing surface – Deep snow, foliage, sloped hills or dubious surfaces help absorb impact vs. flat ground.
- Roll on impact – Rolling distributes force rather than concentrating in one area.
- Clothing – Thick winter clothes can slightly pad impact over exposed skin.
- Alert state – People typically tense up and prepare right before impact if conscious.
- Sheer luck – Somewhat randomly, internal organ damage may be minimized based on landing angle.
With precise conditions, the human body can withstand peaked force levels far higher than under normal circumstances. Cases like Vesna Vulovic showcase the remarkable extremes people can come back from.
Surviving falls from extreme heights over 10,000 feet is extremely rare. But there are astounding cases of people falling from planes and skyscrapers who have lived to tell about it. Snowy, angled surfaces that allow impact absorption and dissipation of energy play a key role in enabling the highest fall survival stories. Other factors like body position, clothing, branches or simple luck also contribute. While human terminal velocity means falls over 150 feet often result in fatalities, there are miraculous exceptions where people endure traumatic injuries and astonish doctors with their recovery. Survival stories like Vesna Vulovic and Nicholas Alkemade beat unthinkable odds and allow us to better understand the limits and capabilities of the human body.