Imagine being seated in the back of a plane and, while you’re flying at 33,330 feet, the plane blows up in mid-air. After being knocked unconscious, you later wake up to find yourself on the ground and in much pain – but still alive, the only survivor. This is precisely what Vesna Vulović claimed, and for this she holds the Guinness Book World Record for having survived the highest fall without a parachute.
In 1972, Vulović was a flight attendant for JAT airlines. On January 26th, Vesna was assigned to the DC-9 JAT Flight 367 (above). The flight started uneventful, but once they reached a cruising altitude of 33,330 feet a terrorist bomb detonated. The plane would break up in air, sending all passengers and crew plummeting to the earth below.
One person would somehow survive.
Vesna Vulović was extremely lucky. After her rescue, doctors revealed Vesna suffered a fractured skull and three broken vertebrae which had left her temporarily paralyzed. She was in a coma for 27 days, but eventually she was able to completely recover. Vulović would later return to flying, admitting she wasn’t afraid because she “didn’t remember anything after take-off.”
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On March 24th, 1944, twenty one year-old Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade – a crew member of a RAF squadron bomber – was shot down over Germany after a Berlin raid. His bomber was attacked by Luftwaffe fighters, caught fire, and began to spiral out of control. Alkemade’s parachute was destroyed by the in-flight fire. Deciding he’d rather die from impact than a fiery crash, he opted to jump from the aircraft without a parachute.
Nicholas’ fall of 18,000 feet was broken by pine trees and heavy snow cover on the ground below. He was able to move his arms and somehow only suffered a sprained leg. The bomber would go on to crash, killing all on board.
Alkemade was quickly captured by Nazi forces on the ground and soon became somewhat of a cult hero amongst the Germans for having the mettle to jump without a parachute. The Germans were so impressed, they awarded him a medal for his feat despite the fact Nicholas was a prisoner of war.
Nicholas Alkemade, RAF bomber
Alan Magee was a U.S. turret-gunman during World War II who, on January 3rd 1943, survived a 22,000-foot fall when his B-17 Flying Fortress had its right wing shot off by Luftwaffe fighters. Magee was wounded in the initial attack, but still managed to escape from the turret. Missing a wing, the bomber entered a deadly spin toward the earth below.
Just as what happened to Alkemade, Magee’s parachute was destroyed in the in-flight fire. Also choosing to fall to his death rather than perish in the bomber, Magee lept from the plane sans parachute, losing consciousness as he plummeted over four miles to the earth below.
Alan Magee would crash through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station. Somehow, the glass roof cushioned his fall and rescuers found him alive on the floor. He had 28 shrapnel wounds, several broken bones, severe damage to his nose and eye, lung and kidney damage, and his right arm was nearly severed – but he survived.
B-17 Flying Fortress, Alan Magee
The oldest record of a notable survived free fall is that of Ivan Chisov. Chisov was a Soviet Air Force Lieutenant who fell 22,000 feet when his Ilyushin II-4 bomber was struck by German fighters. With the battle still raging around his rapidly descending bomber, he opted to not open his parachute immediately – instead waiting until he had fallen below sight of the Germans. Unfortunately he lost consciousness almost immediate after jumping and was unable to pull the rip cord.
Chisov miraculously survived. Falling between 120 and 150 mph, he hit the edge of a snowy ravine and rolled down to the bottom. He suffered a broken leg, pelvis, and some spinal injuries but was eventually able to make a full recovery. Only three months later he was flying again.
* Evidence presented in 2009 suggested JAT Flight 367 was accidentally shot down by Czech fighter planes at a lower altitude. The case has yet to be solved, but enough evidence has been provided to cast doubt on the original 33,000 feet bombing story.