Massachusetts-based amateur historian Jim Hamilton, who developed the Free Fall Research Page — an online database of nearly every imaginable human plummet, documents one case of a sky diver who, upon total parachute failure, was saved by bouncing off high-tension wires. Contrary to popular belief, water is an awful choice. Like concrete, liquid doesn’t compress. Hitting the ocean is essentially the same as colliding with a sidewalk, Hamilton explains, except that pavement (perhaps unfortunately) won’t “open up and swallow your shattered body.” Popular Mechanics: With a target in mind, the next consideration is body position. To slow your descent, emulate a sky diver. Spread your arms and legs, present your chest to the ground, and arch your back and head upward. This adds friction and helps you maneuver. But don’t relax. This is not your landing pose. 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. The same study noted that training in wrestling and acrobatics would help people survive falls. Martial arts were deemed especially useful for hard-surface impacts: “A ‘black belt’ expert can reportedly crack solid wood with a single blow,” the authors wrote, speculating that such skills might be transferable.
The ultimate learn-by-doing experience might be a lesson from Japanese parachutist Yasuhiro Kubo, who holds the world record in the activity’s banzai category. The sky diver tosses his chute from the plane and then jumps out after it, waiting as long as possible to retrieve it, put it on and pull the ripcord. In 2000, Kubo — starting from 9,842 feet — fell for 50 seconds before recovering his gear. A safer way to practice your technique would be at one of the wind-tunnel simulators found at about a dozen U.S. theme parks and malls. But neither will help with the toughest part: sticking the landing. For that you might consider — though it’s not exactly advisable — a leap off the world’s highest bridge, France’s Millau Viaduct; its platform towers 891 feet over mostly spongy farmland. Water landings — if you must — require quick decision-making. Studies of bridge-jump survivors indicate that a feet-first, knife-like entry (aka “the pencil”) best optimizes your odds of resurfacing. The famed cliff divers of Acapulco, however, tend to assume a head-down position, with the fingers of each hand locked together, arms outstretched, protecting the head. Whichever you choose, first assume the free-fall position for as long as you can. Then, if a feet-first entry is inevitable, the most important piece of advice, for reasons both unmentionable and easily understood, is to clench your butt.
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