How Far Can You Fall and Still Survive?

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IStock

You’re on a plane. You’re bored. You stare out the window at the clouds. You wonder what would happen if you couldn’t resist the urge to open the emergency exit and plummet to the earth below. Is death certain? Or would you pick yourself up, set a broken bone or two, and proceed directly to a mental institution with a great story?

Let’s first toss out some variables that often bog down this fair—albeit morbid—question. Forget Felix Baumgartner, the man who filmed himself jumping from 128,100 feet. He had a cool pressurized suit and a parachute. And let’s set aside what free-fall experts have coined “wreckage riders,” those who have fallen while trapped inside a portion of broken aircraft. (The larger surface area increases air drag, slowing their descent. Still likely fatal, but the odds improve somewhat: Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulovic fell 33,000 feet this way in 1972 and lived to tell her tale—once she woke up from her coma.)

Let’s instead restrict the question to a single individual without any equipment, encasement, or premeditation. You’ve ripped the exit door open like a lunatic. You begin to fall. What now?

We know for certain a person can survive a fall of at least 20,000 feet. That’s how far up World War II pilot Alan Magee was when he had to abandon his plane without a parachute. He crashed through a glass roof that likely helped spread out the impact. According to James Kakalios, Ph.D., a professor at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, how and where you land is one of the major factors in whether you get up from the ground or go 6 feet further into it.

“If you can make the time [landing] longer, the force needed to stop you is smaller,” he says. “Think of punching a wall or a mattress. The wall is rigid and the time of interaction is short so the force is large. People who have survived falls, they’ve managed to increase that time, even if it’s in milliseconds. From one millisecond to three, that’s three times longer, three times less force needed for the same change in momentum.” Magee’s glass landing likely reduced the impact; other survivors have plummeted into snow, trees, or something that can better absorb your landing than, say, concrete.

The other major factor? Slowing your descent. Increasing surface area means more energy is required to push air out of your way, slowing you down. The “flying squirrel” position, body splayed out, is preferred over falling feet or head first. “Increasing that drag is the biggest factor in keeping you alive,” Kakalios says. A parachute’s large surface area is best, obviously. Without one, fall belly down or try tumbling. “Drop a pen off the Empire State Building straight down and it might kill someone. But if it drops sideways, spinning end over end, it probably wouldn’t.”

You’re increasing air drag. You’re trying to land in snow or something absorbent. If you’ve passed out from lack of oxygen at high altitudes, you’ve woken up in time to orient yourself. Magee traveled 20,000 feet—nearly four miles—so you know survival is possible from there. What about going higher?

Kakalios stops short of offering a prediction, citing the numerous variables involved. (“Even how much clothing is fluttering behind you can affect surface profile,” he says.) So we pestered someone else: Paul Doherty, Ph.D., a physicist and Co-Director of the Exploratorium, a learning center in San Francisco, California.  

“As you get higher up, the air gets thinner and thinner,” he says. “You can spin so fast the blood can rush into your head and kill you. Or the friction with the elevation will burn you up. That’s why space shuttles have heat insulating tiles.”

Once terminal velocity (maximum acceleration, usually 120 miles per hour for average-sized humans) is reached, Doherty says, it doesn’t really matter whether you throw another 5000 or 10,000 feet on top of Magee’s 20,000: You’re not going to fall any faster. But start too high up and the lower atmospheric pressure means your blood might start to boil. That’s believed to happen around 63,000 feet, though data is obviously limited, and Doherty thinks it might be as high as 100,000. (NASA mandates pressure suits starting at 50,000 feet just to be on the safe side.)

So falling just under 63,000 feet is survivable, in theory? “Let’s say 60,000, Doherty says. Up to 100,000 if you wake up after passing out. And if your blood doesn’t boil. And if you can impact something.”

Stay on the plane.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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Why Does the Supreme Court Have Nine Justices?

Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Front row, left to right: Stephen G. Breyer, Clarence Thomas, (Chief Justice) John G. Roberts, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel A. Alito. Back row: Neil M. Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Fred Schilling, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States // Public Domain

Some facets of the U.S. government—like presidential terms and post offices—were written into the original Constitution after (often lengthy) deliberations by the Founding Fathers. The number of Supreme Court justices was not one of those things.

The document did establish a Supreme Court, and it stated that the president should appoint its judges; it also mentioned that a “Chief Justice shall preside” if the president gets impeached. Since it was left up to Congress to work out the rest of the details, they passed the Judiciary Act of 1789, which outlined an entire court system and declared that the Supreme Court should comprise one chief justice and five associate justices. As History.com explains, they landed on six because the justices would have to preside over federal circuit courts, one of which was located in each state. Traveling wasn’t quick or easy in the horse-and-carriage days, so Congress wanted to minimize each justice’s jurisdiction. They split the courts into three regions, and assigned two justices to each region.

According to Maeva Marcus, director of the Institute for Constitutional History at George Washington University Law School, the even number of justices was a non-issue. “They never even thought about it, because all the judges were Federalists and they didn’t foresee great disagreement,” she told History.com. “Plus, you didn’t always have all six justices appearing at the Supreme Court for health and travel reasons.”

Over the next 80 years, the number of Supreme Court justices would fluctuate for two reasons: the addition of federal circuit courts, and presidents’ partisan motives. John Adams and his Federalist Congress reduced the number to five with the Judiciary Act of 1801, which they hoped would prevent Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson from getting to fill a seat after he took office that year. By the following year, Jefferson’s Congress had passed another judicial act that returned the number of justices to six, and they upped it to seven after forming another circuit court in 1807.

The nation grew significantly during the early 19th century, and Congress finally added two new circuit courts—and with them, two new Supreme Court seats—during Andrew Jackson’s presidential tenure in 1837. Republican Abraham Lincoln then briefly increased the number of justices to 10 in order to add another abolitionist vote, but Congress shrunk it to seven in 1866 to keep Andrew Johnson from filling seats with Democrats. As soon as Republican Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson, Congress set the number back to nine, where it’s remained ever since.

Sketched portraits of the U.S. Supreme Court justices through 1897.Popular and Applied Graphic Art Print Filing Series, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1911, Congress did away with circuit courts altogether, so the number of Supreme Court justices stopped being contingent upon their expansion (though each justice does still oversee a region to help with occasional tasks). As for presidents shifting the number to serve their own goals, it’s now looked down upon as “packing the court.” When Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to increase it to 15 in the 1930s to push his New Deal through the Supreme Court, the Senate opposed the bill by a whopping 70 to 20 votes.

In short, the depth of the Supreme Court’s bench changed a lot in America’s early years not only because the country was expanding, but also because the federal government was still testing out its system of checks and balances. And though presidents do still appoint justices based on their own political party, we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Supreme Court is, at least ideologically, supposed to be unbiased. If Congress and the president kept up the habit of adding and subtracting justices at will, it would tarnish this ideal.

“If Congress increases the size of the Supreme Court for transparently partisan political reasons, it would cement the idea the justices are little more than politicians in robes, and that the court is little more than an additional—and very powerful—arm through which partisan political power can be exercised,” Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, wrote for NBC News. “Indeed, that Congress has not revisited the size of the court in 150 years is a powerful testament to just how ingrained the norm of nine has become—and how concerned different political constituencies have been at different times about preserving the court’s power.”

[h/t History.com]