#2. Cliff Judkins Hits the Water from 15,000 Feet
In 1963, Cliff Judkins was flying an F-8 fighter when a midair refueling accident turned his plane into a supersonic flaming torch. He had seconds to get out before he'd be engulfed in an orange ball of burning jet fuel.
So, Judkins reached for the controls to eject, only to find that both of the releases for the ejection seat were broken. He was going to have to jump out of the aircraft on his own. But there was a problem. See, here is why ejection seats eject -- there's a big-ass tail fin back there that you have to clear:
"I said all pilots should wear a cup. They said, 'No, when would you ever need that?'"
Well, unless you want it to cut you in half like a giant supersonic samurai sword. Judkins looked over his shoulder to see through the giant flames that were quickly engulfing his plane, knowing he'd have to jump out with enough force to clear the 20-foot-tall tail. He threw himself from the plane and sensed that his legs were in fact still attached to his body, allowing a sigh of relief hardly heard as the wind whipped at his face at 15,000 feet.
Thinking he should slow his fall, he pulled at his parachute, only to find, as you can guess, that it didn't deploy correctly. After a few minutes of terrifying struggle to get it to open, all while falling to his almost certain death, he smacked hard into the ocean.
We can only hope he took the opportunity to break the world belly-flop record.
It was then, while in the water, that his parachute finally fully deployed. Naturally, it opened underwater, and the current started to drag him under. With a broken back, ankles and pelvis, and a collapsed lung, plus kidneys and intestines in critical failure, he was somehow able to summon the willpower to cut the cords with a knife he had strapped to his body. He survived with just moments to spare.
With his injuries, swimming was out of the question, but he was able to keep afloat. Rough seas prevented rescue craft from landing, but they were able to drop emergency life rafts, which in his state he was too weak to reach. Finally, a plane was able to drop a raft trailing a 200-foot cord that he was able to grab, pulling the raft to him. Because his limbs basically couldn't function anymore, though, the best he could do was manage to get a good grip on the side of the raft as he waited two and half hours before a ship could come get him.
"No, it's cool, I'm sure Senator Brown's tax reforms are just as interesting."
But survive he did, as the newspaper headline says. In fact, the first link in this entry is to an interview with Judkins that took place almost 50 years later.
#1. Two Pilots Survive a Miles-Long Fall, While Unconscious
Ivan Chisov was flying his Soviet bomber during World War II when several German planes swept in and turned his flying machine into a falling-while-on-fire machine. Chisov bailed out, but, not wanting to be a conspicuous target for a passing Nazi pilot while he slowly parachuted to earth, decided to wait to pull his chute until he was closer to the ground. What he didn't realize, though, was that bailing out in the extremely thin atmosphere at 22,000 feet would cause him to black out due to the lack of oxygen.
This probably saved his life.
"I fall, I black out, I wake up in pain. Just like my Saturday nights."
Yes, it helped that he was flying over that ice-encrusted, snow-blanketed winter wonderland known as the Soviet Union, and he smacked down on an angled, snow-covered slope. But being unconscious actually helps people survive free falls, as the body is relaxed when it hits the ground (you can enjoy the same benefits by being "drunk, on drugs, suicidal or crazy, according to top experts in the field"). Nearby Soviet ground forces rushed to pick up what was left of him and were shocked to find Chisov injured but still alive. In three months he was back in the air.
Then, during the same war, a British pilot named Nicholas Alkemade went through an arguably more impressive version of the same thing. German fighters turned his bomber into a flaming inferno, and the fire destroyed his parachute. He realized that he faced either jumping into the black void or burning to death in his flying metal coffin. Picking door number 1, Alkemade did a backward somersault out of his cockpit and, of course, promptly passed out due to immediate lack of oxygen. He never got the chance to pull his ripcord.
Blowing your only chance at survival pulling an awesome aerobatic move? Totally worth it.
There was no gentle slope waiting for him below, but there was a forest full of pine trees. Instead of getting impaled on a tree limb, he passed through layers of branches that slapped him all the way down, slowing his fall bit by bit. Once he made it all the way through the trees, he landed in a huge snowdrift that cushioned his fall further.
Alkemade awoke in the snow and discovered that his injuries were nothing more than a cut over his eye and a sprained ankle. The Germans quickly captured him, but became suspicious when they heard his story, thinking that they were really in custody of an Allied spy. After all, what kind of superman can fall from the sky and survive without even deploying his parachute?
The same superman who can rock that mustache without looking like a pedophile.
Further Nazi investigation discovered his plane and confirmed his story. The Germans were so impressed that Alkemade had jumped without his chute that they gave him a certificate, and he became something of a celebrity while living out the war in a POW camp.