I just saw this question about humans surviving terminal velocity free-falls, sometimes even with little injury depending on the surface conditions, particularly over forests, hills, or thick snow cover.

That made me wonder, if a passenger of:

  • a large commercial aircraft, perhaps a Boeing 737
  • crashing from 5000 meters or higher
  • above a large forest or thick snow

had the choice between free falling and buckling up to crash with the aircraft, which option would offer him the greatest chance of surviving?

I'm thinking the plane might offer lower falling speed, and physical protection, but also pose the dangers of giant engines, explosions, and crushed metal / shrapnel. Perhaps the answer is that over a forest, the free fall could be safer, and over snow the plane could be safer, but that's pure speculation on my part.

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    $\begingroup$ and the plane is engineered to slow down the stop at the end of the fall for extra survival odds for the pax. $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Nov 13 '14 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ The only way I would even consider jumping out of a plane would be if I had a parachute! Seriously, just because fate smiled on some people does not mean that you should tempt it! $\endgroup$ – Matthew Peters Nov 13 '14 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthewPeters and even with a parachute I'd be loath to jump unless I had at least some prior training in its use. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 14 '14 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting, I hate quoting movies but... "yeah well, I've never been with two girls before, but you bet when that day comes, I'll make it work" $\endgroup$ – Matthew Peters Nov 14 '14 at 14:28

Statistically, there has got to be graphs you can combine to show the number of airplane crashes to fatalities and a graph with skydives (without a chute/malfunctions) to fatalities. I'd venture to say that the odds are far greater to surviving an airplane crash than a freefall.

Let's look at the factors...

A freefall:

  • your velocity in not slowed by anything
  • your body is not protected by anything
  • you have no control on where to 'crash'

A crash landing:

  • passengers are slowed greatly by the aircraft
  • passengers are greatly protected physically (airframes are designed to minimize risks from explosions, shrapnel, and crash G's)
  • there is a greater chance the aircraft can be controlled somewhat to crash in the best place.

The only time it would be better to jump without a parachute is if you are this guy or the aircraft is about to be torn apart.

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    $\begingroup$ Let's add to that the fact that the aircraft has an emergency locator beacon, and that any rescue crews are going to be looking for survivors at the crash site. Assuming you survive your leap of faith (and that's a big assumption) you could well die of exposure before rescuers find you. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Nov 13 '14 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ in freefall your velocity is slowed by the air around you. If it wasn't, you'd not stop accellerating on reaching terminal velocity :) $\endgroup$ – jwenting Nov 14 '14 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ If the aircraft is torn apart at cruise level you will be die from barotrauma before you reach the ground anyway. This guy survived aircraft in-flight break-up only because in that plane they wear space-suits. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 14 '14 at 9:37
  • $\begingroup$ You tube returns ""Travis Pastrana Skydiv..." This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Nitro Circus." for the "this guy" link above. $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads May 1 '18 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec: That wasn't barotrauma, that was windblast. $\endgroup$ – Vikki Feb 4 at 21:10

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