I began collecting long-fall survival stories more than twenty years ago. At the time, I was researching a group of journalists called “The Writing 69th” who covered the 8th Air Force’s activities out of England during World War II. One of the first stories I encountered concerned an American tail gunner named Joe Jones who survived a fall of more than 13,000 feet in the severed tail of his B-17 bomber.
Jones was trapped in the tail section. As he fell, he thought about feeding his parachute out of the window, but he decided against it. He lit a cigarette and awaited his fate, falling 13,500 feet. Pulled unconscious from the wreckage by Belgian villagers, he woke up a few days later in a British field hospital. He made a full recovery. Fittingly, Jones’ bomber was named "Mr. Lucky".
Patterns emerged as I came across more long-fall survival stories. I chose the descriptor “Wreckage Rider” to describe stories like Joe’s. The most amazing stories involved individuals who fell thousands of feet yet survived despite not having a working parachute or being protected by the wreckage they fell in. These folks I call “Free Fallers.”
One of the most fantastic of these incidents involved another tail gunner, Nicholas Alkemade of the Royal Air Force. On a mission to Germany, the four-engine bomber he was in was attacked by a German night fighter and set on fire. The pilot gave the order to bail out, but when Alkemade turned from his gun turret and looked for his parachute, he saw that it was aflame. Left with the miserable choice of burning up or jumping without a parachute, he chose to jump. 18,000 feet later he landed in trees, drifted snow, and underbrush.
Alkemade twisted his knee, hurt his back, and had some cuts, but was otherwise okay. When he awoke about three hours later, he lit up a celebratory cigarette. He could not sit up so he blew his whistle and was discovered not long after. The Germans were sceptical upon hearing his story, thinking he might be a spy who had hidden his parachute, but he convinced them by providing some details about his parachute harness as well as items that he told them would be found in the wreckage (specifically, the remains of his burnt parachute).
Upon seeing a couple of these stories I began to wonder if there were more. I created a website, the Free Fall Research Page, to track them.
Since then I have collected hundreds of long-fall survival stories. Some are more fantastic than others, but they all share some similarities, and not all took place during wartime.
One of the best-known stories is of a 17-year-old girl named Juliane Koepcke. On Christmas Eve of 1971, Juliane and her mother were on a flight from Lima to Iquitos, Peru. The airliner was struck by lightning and broke up during a storm. Juliane fell two miles, still strapped in her seat. She survived, but her ordeal had just begun. Despite a broken collarbone and other injuries, she walked for 11 days through the Amazon rainforest, following rivers downstream as her guide until she finally found help.
Koepcke's story has been the subject of two films, the most recent being a Werner Herzog documentary called "Wings of Hope." Herzog, who was filming in Peru at the time of the crash, had been bumped from that flight. Many years later, still fascinated by the story, he contacted her and made the documentary, in which Koepcke revisits the crash site.
I am in the process of completing an illustrated book on these stories. It’s called “Falling: Amazing Survival Stories” and will be published later in 2023.
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