“Who Needs a Parachute?” People Who Fell from Planes and Survived

Amazing Stories

I recently wrote an article about 17-year-old Juliana Koepcke who got sucked out of a plane, fell 10,000 feet over the Amazon, and survived. My readers alerted me that she was not the only one to survive such an ordeal.  Here are more people, including the world record holder, who fell from even greater heights without a parachute and lived to tell about it.

Bear Grylls (16,000-foot fall)

In 1996, 21-year-old Bear Grylls, famous adventurer and TV personality, was a member of the British SAS (Special Forces). He was doing skydiving training over Zambia. At 16,000 feet, his parachute failed to inflate. He cut away the main chute, but there wasn’t time to deploy his reserve chute. He landed on his parachute pack, fracturing three vertebrae. He spent the next year undergoing rehabilitation 10 hours a day. Just 18 months after the accident, he climbed Mount Everest. Unfortunately, he is still in constant pain to this day.

Nicholas Alkemade (18,000-foot fall)

In 1944, Royal Air Force Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade was a rear gunner in a British Lancaster bomber flying over Germany. The Luftwaffe fighter planes attacked, and the bomber caught fire. The flames destroyed Nicholas’ parachute.  He decided he would rather suffer the sudden death from a fall, than burning to death.  So, at 18,000 feet he leaped from the plane.

Lancaster Bomber

He fell for a terrifying minute and a half, and landed in a snow drift outside Berlin. He survived.  His only injuries were a broken wrist and leg. When he was discovered by the Gestapo, they didn’t believe his story. He was taken prisoner and sent to the notorious prison camp Stalag III, and he was released at the end of the war.  He died in 1987 at the age of 64.

Alan Magee (22,000-foot fall)

American Airman Alan Magee was a ball turret gunner on the belly of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber during WWII.

In 1943, he flew over occupied France in a bomber named “Snap! Crackle! Pop!” German flak blew off the right wing, and the plane went into a death spiral. The flak had shredded Magee’s parachute. Because of the high-altitude Magee blacked out, and he was thrown clear of the plane.  He fell 22,000 feet (over 4 miles).  He crashed through the glass roof of the Saint Maizière train station. He was discovered on the floor of the station and taken prisoner.  He had 28 shrapnel wounds, several broken bones, severe damage to his lung, kidney, nose, and eye, and a partially severed arm.

Ball Turret Belly Gunner
Ball Turret Gunner Cramped and Exposed

At the end of the war, he was received an Air Medal and Purple Heart.  In 1993, the 50th anniversary of his fall, the people of St. Maizière erected a 6-foot memorial honoring the bomber crew.

He kept his love of flying, and after the war he earned his pilot’s license and worked in the airline industry.  He died in 2003 at the age of 84.

B-17 with Ball Turret Gunner Underneath

Vesna Vulovic (33,000-foot fall – World Record)

In 1972, 22-year-old Vesna Vulovic of Yugoslavia, was working as a flight attendant when her jet was destroyed by a terrorist bomb. The jet broke apart, and she fell 33,000 feet.  After over two-and-a-half terrifying minutes she landed in snow. She survived, but had a skull fracture, broken back, and broken legs. She holds the Guinness Book of Records record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute. Amazingly, she never her lost her love of flying.

What are the odds?

(See: “Five Survivors of Spectacular Falls,” John Kelly, BBC News Magazine, Jun 17, 2013; “Nicholas Alkemade: The Airman Who Fell 18,000 Feet Without a Parachute and Lived,” Jay Hemmings, War History Online, Mar 7, 2019; “Vesna Voluvic,” Vikepeedia; “Alan Magee,” “Nicholas Alkemade,” Wikipedia)


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