If an airliner were to breakup in flight, and a passenger were ejected from the cabin, would it be possible to survive the fall?

Assume that the aircraft broke up at a cruise altitude 30,000-35,000 feet. If it improved the odds, suppose the person were wearing a heavy winter jacket and a backpack with additional clothing in a plastic bag.

Is is possible the person could survive the fall? Are there steps the person could take that might increase the chances of survival?

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    $\begingroup$ You may not survive. $\endgroup$ – eduardoguilherme Jan 26 '16 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Extraordinarily good luck. $\endgroup$ – Fred Larson Jan 26 '16 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ It's not the fall that will kill you, it is the abrupt end of the fall that does you in. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Jan 26 '16 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ "JAT stewardess Vesna Vulović survived a fall of 10,000 metres (33,000 ft) on January 26, 1972 when she was aboard JAT Flight 367. The plane was brought down by explosives over Srbská Kamenice in the former Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic)." (Source). $\endgroup$ – mins Jan 26 '16 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Alkemade Related: survived a fall from a bomber at 18,000ft, suffering a sprained leg. Hitting trees down the side of a hill, followed by a snow bank, was what saved his life. Possible, but unlikely. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 28 '16 at 15:49

Chances are you would not survive but lets explore this a bit more in depth for the sake of education.

This article from popular mechanics explores the very issue. There is some research that has gone into the topic of hitting the ground but the research is rarely about cases from the height you are asking about (~30,000ft). Some relevant info

First off at that altitude you really can't breathe that effectively so hypoxia will be your first concern followed closely by extreme cold.

Hitting water:

Studies of bridge-jump survivors indicate that a feet-first, knife-like entry (aka "the pencil") best optimizes your odds of resurfacing.

Hitting the ground:

The question of how to achieve ground contact remains, regrettably, given your predicament, a subject of debate. A 1942 study in the journal War Medicine noted "distribution and compensation of pressure play large parts in the defeat of injury." Recommendation: wide-body impact. But a 1963 report by the Federal Aviation Agency argued that shifting into the classic sky diver's landing stance—feet together, heels up, flexed knees and hips—best increases survivability.

Your best bet for surviving the airplane break up is if you are stuck in a situation similar to that of Vesna Vulović who did survive the situation you describe. Unfortunately there is some debate as to what actually happened so take the info at face value.

“Speed has never killed anyone. Suddenly becoming stationary, that's what gets you.” ― Jeremy Clarkson

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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that if you pass out from hypoxia or hypothermia (both pretty likely given the low partial-pressure of oxygen and extreme cold at typical jet cruising altitudes) you may not wake up in time to adopt any landing position when you hit whatever's below you. On the "bright" side being unconscious combined with the low odds of surviving the landing impact means you probably won't care how you land anyway. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jan 26 '16 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps the best bet: hit a snowbank & get rescued quickly: {Early 20th century} "Literature discussing the use of parachute troops is published. The concept is considered amusing in most countries but is taken seriously in Germany and in Russia. The Russians practice dropping troops from airplanes in deep snow without parachutes. There are few injuries from shock, but too many fatalities from suffocation. The concept is abandoned." $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Jan 27 '16 at 5:35
  • $\begingroup$ I have nominated the question for re-opening, just for this excellent answer $\endgroup$ – Firee Jan 27 '16 at 7:04
  • $\begingroup$ @voretaq7: It will also depend the duration of exposure of extreme temperature, as the subject will lose altitude drastically, as he would be travelling faster than the terminal velocity.. $\endgroup$ – Firee Jan 27 '16 at 7:10
  • $\begingroup$ Another example: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Alkemade $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Jan 28 '16 at 15:49

According to Wikipedia's article on terminal velocity,

the terminal velocity of a skydiver in a belly-to-earth (i.e., face down) free-fall position is about 195 km/h (122 mph or 54 m/s).

Using this online physics calculator with

Acceleration: 98.1 m/s^2 (10G)
Final velocity: 0
Initial velocity: 54 m/s

I get a deceleration distance of -9.42 meters, or about 31 feet.

If you can somehow slow down over that distance (perhaps by hitting a stand of trees and some snow, preferably on a hill side) you might make it.

Note: the 10G deceleration is completely arbitrary on my part - I assume it's a reasonably survivable impact depending on what and how you hit.

  • $\begingroup$ 10 G seems pretty restrictive -- two or three times that is probably survivable for a brief period. Hurt like heck & sustain injuries, but fighter pilots routinely pull 9 Gs sustained without injury. The G-suit aids in retaining consciousness, but Red Bull pilots pull Gs like that without a suit & do okay. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Jan 27 '16 at 5:30

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