Skydiving Without a Parachute: Everything You Need To Know
There’s an old joke, ‘you don’t need a parachute to go skydiving, you only need a parachute to go skydiving twice.’ Despite those words of jest, there are those, who by meticulous planning and bravado or freakish luck, have survived skydiving without a parachute.
While there’s no such thing as a totally risk-free skydive, skydiving is a relatively safe sport (when done correctly and under the supervision of professionals). But doing so without the aid of a parachute or wingsuit is a different story altogether. Professional skydiving with a parachute results in a fatality less than once in every 100,000 jumps. However, there are no calculations on how safe skydiving without a parachute is – so few have been
crazy brave enough to do so.
It takes an insane amount of skill, planning, and luck to complete a skydive without a parachute. Still, many thrill-seekers ponder over what it’d be like to partake in the most extreme of extreme sports.
What is skydiving without a parachute called?
Heading for terminal velocity
There’s no widely agreed term for skydiving (and landing) without a parachute. The term ‘freefall’ is the act of falling through the sky without anything to slow or aid your descent. You are literally falling free through the air, at the mercy of gravity and the elements.
When a skydiver jumps from a plane they’re regarded as being in freefall until the moment they use their parachute. This is typically at around 2,000 to 5,500 feet from the ground. So with a typical skydive starting at 10,000 to 15,000 feet, around ⅔ of the skydive will be a freefall without the use of a parachute.
There is a form of extreme skydiving referred to as banzai skydiving. It’s somewhat mythical on the skydiving scene with few recorded cases or verified banzai jumps. To complete a banzai skydive the skydiver needs to throw their parachute out of the plane and diver after it. They must then catch up to their parachute and strap it on. And this all needs to be done in time for a safe landing in the targetted zone. Purists will only recognize a banzai jump when it’s done by a solo skydiver with no third-party support.
There’s no wonder banzai skydiving is regarded by many as the world’s most dangerous sport!
How fast do you fall when skydiving without a parachute?
Photo by Muzammil Soorma on Unsplash
Back on October 14th of 2012, the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner set three unimaginable world records. You probably even saw it, as it streamed live on YouTube by 9.5 million people during the Redbull Stratos Event. As well as recording the highest manned balloon flight and the highest altitude jump, he also fell so fast he became the first human to break the sound barrier without the use of an engine! His top speed was logged at 843.6 mph (the speed of sound is 769 mph).
OK, so your not going to fall anywhere near that fast on a regular skydive. When in freefall within the earth’s atmosphere a human will immediately begin to accelerate at around 9.8 m/s 2 . You’ll continue to accelerate until you reach ‘terminal velocity,’ which is around 53 m/s 2 for someone in the spread freefall position, which equates to about 190 km/h or 118 mph. You’d then hold this speed until you changed position to create less surface area, or until you used the aid of a parachute or wingsuit.
Your weight can make a small difference and two people on a tandem dive will gain a few extra mph. But it’s your body position or spread mass which has the greater factor on your speed. If a skydiver wants to increase their speed they can reduce the spread of their body. Decreasing their surface area will then increase their terminal velocity and top speed. Diving headfirst a skydiver can reach speeds up to 180 mph.
What does it feel like to freefall?
The feel of freefalling through the sky…
Given that your freefall acceleration is around 9.8 m/s and most people reach terminal velocity by 53 m/s 2 you’ll only feel the full effects of free-falling for about 5.4 seconds. While those first few seconds can be an adrenaline rush, once you reach terminal velocity you can expect to find a calming sensation. As you stop accelerating and you feel cushioned by the air, able to take in the amazing views.
There are some myths that when freefalling the noise is deafening, but this is totally untrue. Yes, it can be noisy, but it’s more like driving down the highway with the window open ⅓. There’s going to be some loud noise but it’s nothing too unfamiliar or alarming. With all your other senses being stimulated you probably won’t be bothered by the noise at all.
The most overwhelming sensation will be the view. You’ll get a spectacular and breathtaking view for miles around, giving you a new perspective of what’s surrounding you. You’ll also get this clean, fresh air smell, and a chilled rush of air caressing and passing around your body. It can be a wholly pleasant and emotional experience.
What is the highest skydive without a parachute?
While Felix Baumgartner recorded the highest every skydive and freefall, even he ended his fall with a parachute. The highest recorded skydive without a parachute is currently by American skydiver Luke Aikins. Luke completed a jump and freefall of 25,000 feet without the use of any parachute or wingsuit (a typical skydive is usually between 7,000 to 18,000 feet).
As part of a televised event called ‘Heaven Sent,’ on July 30th, 2016, Luke made his jump over the Simi Valley in California. He reached speeds of 120 mph with the skydive taking just 2 minutes.
Luke used a sophisticated GPS system that matched his position with the position of the 30x30m net awaiting his landing. A light on each corner of the polyethylene net indicated his positioning. The lights showed red when he was out of position and white when he was on target. In the final seconds before reaching the target, Luke flipped over on his back and landed safely in the netting. Phew!
Can you survive skydiving without a parachute?
Aim for a soft landing, like bales of hay, dense bushes, or deep snow
As Luke proved, it is possible to go skydiving without a parachute and live to tell the tale. But there have been extremely rare cases where a skydiver’s equipment has failed or someone has fallen from a plane, and they have landed without a parachute… and survived!
There’s the incredible case of Victoria Cilliers who in 2015 went skydiving from 4,000 feet. Mid-fall Victoria discovered that her parachute and reserve had both malfunctioned. She plummeted to the earth without anything to slow her fall. It incredibly turned out that her husband, Emile, had purposely tampered with her parachute in a bid to murder her. Even more incredibly, Victoria survived the fall!
But this isn’t the highest anyone has survived an unplanned freefall without a parachute. In 1972, a Serbian flight attendant called Vesna Vulović fell over 33,330 feet. Vesna was sent into an unplanned freefall when her DC-9 passenger plane exploded during a routine flight. Miraculously, she lived to tell the tale.
How do you survive skydiving without a parachute?
In planned skydiving without a parachute, as with Luke Aitkin’s jump, the skydiver will have a large cushioned or netted area to land in. They’ll also have lots of aids, precautions, and safety procedures in place to limit the risks and dangers involved. But what if a skydiver finds themselves unexpectedly freefalling with no parachute or equipment to help slow or stop their plummet? How could you increase your chances of surviving such a freefall without a parachute?
Victoria Cilliers was fortunate to fall into a freshly plowed field. In 2006, skydiver Michael Holmes fell 10,500 feet with his parachute and reserve both failing. He landed on a large blackberry bush. In 2009, skydiver James Boole fell 6,000 feet, only managing to open his parachute at the last minute. His fall was into deep snow.
These survivors all have something in common – they landed on soft surfaces which cushioned their impact. Spreading your body and surface area as wide as you can, will not decrease your speed significantly. To survive, your best tactic is to focus on the landing area and try to find the softest target.
How often do parachutes fail?
Parachutes rarely fail and are built to always get you safely to the ground!
Despite the horrors and misfortune of the above, it’s extremely rare for a parachute to fail. Parachutes are packed by licensed professionals and routinely checked. 1 in 1,000 parachutes can experience some form of malfunction, but even on these rare occasions, the skydiver can activate the backup parachute. If for any reason they are unable to do so, the reserve will automatically deploy.
The truth is that most skydiving deaths happen with a fully functional parachute and are down to human error. Usually when the skydiver attempts to do something risky or stupid. In fact, a significant number of skydiver deaths happen during shows and performances. During performances, there’s an increased amount of risk and skydivers attempt to do something more dangerous and spectacular.
How to Survive Falling Without a Parachute
You’re more than 3.6 km (12,000 ft) above the Earth. And there’s no turning back now.
But as you jump out of the plane, and see how beautiful the Earth looks below you, you start to think that this might not be so bad. Then you pull the cord to open your parachute, and all your worst fears come true.
There’s no parachute coming out, and now you’re plummeting towards the ground at about 200 km/h (125 mph). You’ve only got about a minute before you hit the ground. Is there anything you can do to save yourself?
Here’s how to survive a fall without a parachute.
Every time your life depends on a parachute, there is a one in 1,000 chance that it won’t work. But a malfunctioning parachute isn’t necessarily a death sentence.
According to skydiving experts, the secret to surviving is all about how you react when the parachute fails. How should you position your body? Is there anything you could do to slow down your fall? And why could landing on a roof be better than landing in a big body of water?
Step 1: Slow Your Descent
Just like most survival situations, the best thing to do is to slow everything down. Slow down your breathing to avoid hyperventilating, slow down your thoughts so you can focus, and slow down the speed of your fall so you don’t splatter on the ground.
To do that, you’ll need to spread out your body into an x-shape. Spread your arms and legs, point your chest toward the ground, and arch your back and head upward. This will create more air resistance, and slow your acceleration, giving you time to choose where to land.
Step 2: Avoid Landing in Water
Although the giant pool of liquid below you might look like a more appealing landing spot than the solid ground, it would probably be just as deadly. Like concrete, water doesn’t compress, so landing in a lake would be just like landing on a sidewalk.
Sure, you could position yourself to reduce the impact, but even then you could still be knocked out cold. And being unconscious underwater does not help you survive, so let’s find somewhere better.
Step 3: Direct Yourself to a Better Landing Spot
To move sideways through the air, away from the water, and towards a safer target, you’ll need to use a skydiving technique called tracking. Bring your arms and legs in against your body to steer it as you fall.
Your three best options for landing spots would be a swamp, snow, or trees, because they would all extend your deceleration time and help you slow down. If you were to land on solid ground, your body would decelerate from its falling speed of 200 km/h (125 mph) to 0 km/h in half a second, hitting you with enough g-force to kill you instantly.
But if you were to land somewhere that provides more cushioning, you could extend that deceleration by a couple of seconds, which would significantly reduce the g-force, and give you a better chance of surviving. If you can’t see a swamp, snow, or trees anywhere nearby, then your next best option would be to look for something big to break your fall, like a rooftop, or a bus. These structures are not very strong, so when you hit them, they’ll break and absorb some of the energy of your fall.
Step 4: Land on Your Feet
Okay, so now it’s the moment of truth. You’ve chosen your target landing spot, and now you’ve got to hit it. The best way to do this would be to point your toes toward the ground, and land on the balls of your feet. I know what you’re thinking. “That sounds painful!” And you’re right, it will be.
But the idea is that your body will have more time to slow down if you land feet-first. The long bones in your legs will absorb a large amount of the impact energy before they fracture. Essentially, you’ll be sacrificing your legs to protect the rest of your body.
Step 5: Cover Your Head
Just before landing, put your head down, with the fingers of each hand locked together behind it, and point your elbows in front of your face, to protect your head and neck from impact. The main reason why people die from falling off tall buildings and bridges is severe head trauma.
Even if you do everything else right, if you end up bouncing on your head when you land, you won’t survive.
So quickly, get into position. That should be all you need to know. Now comes the hard part. You need to figure out where you are, and get help as soon as possible.
8 People Who Jumped Without A Parachute And Survived
1 The stuntman who jumped from 25,000 without a parachute and landed safely in a net
In July 2016, stuntman Luke Aikins successfully jumped from a plane without the use of a parachute — willingly. (He’s one of two people on our list whose jump minus a chute wasn’t an accident.) The daredevil fell from twice the height of an average dive (25,000 feet — skydivers typically jump at about 13,000 feet) and landed in a net about a third of the size of a football field. To see the man with nerves (and other body parts) of steel do his thing, watch below:
2 The diver who filmed his accident as he descended
In 2007, skydiver Michael Holmes’ harrowing escape from death, desperate farewell, wave goodbye, and hard landing in a blackberry bush were captured by the helmet-mounted cameras he and his instructor donned before jumping from a plane at 14,000 feet.
Holmes, 24 at the time, didn’t panic when his main chute failed about 4,000 feet above the ground. Falling back on his extensive experience and training, he ignored his out-of-control spinning — 84 revolutions in all — and worked to free the main chute to clear way for the reserve to open. It did, but much too late to do any real good — his landing into a blackberry bush was what saved him.
He suffered a collapsed lung and broken ankle, but went back to jumping, saying “It’s what I do. I love it.”
3 The diver who discovered she was two weeks pregnant after her freefall
Shayna Richardson began skydiving when she turned 21. In 2005, the Joplin, Missouri woman was making her 10th dive in Siloam Springs, Arkansas with a brand new parachute when things suddenly went wrong. She was diving solo about 3,000 feet up when her chutes failed, and it’s estimated she was going 50 mph at impact. “Right before I hit,” she said, “I let go and I just, I told God, ‘Alright, I know I’m going home now. Just please don’t make it hurt.'”
She doesn’t remember hitting the ground, but said, “My instructor ran over to me, and he said I sat up, was talking to him, and tried to get up and get around. Of course, he made me stay down. But I don’t remember any of that conversation. I just kept repeatedly asking if I was dreaming and if I was still alive.”
Richardson now has 15 plates in her face for fractures after four operations. She also suffered two breaks in her pelvis, as well as a broken right fibula. But there was one shock she had yet to discover— at the time of her jump, she was two weeks pregnant. Despite everything that had happened, the fetus was said to be perfectly healthy.
4 The man who leapt from 14,000 feet before his parachute and reserve failed
Brad Guy had no intention of jumping without a parachute, but he did — and he’s lucky he survived.
Guy was strapped to an instructor and jumped from 14,000 feet when their chute ripped open as it was deployed. He asked, “Are we going to die?” The only response his instructor, a veteran of 2000 tandem jumps, could give was “I don’t know.”
The backup chute opened correctly but was tangled with the first as they spun toward the ground. The duo fell into soft earth in a dam by a golf course, with Guy on top. Both men spent several weeks in the hospital.
5 The first wingsuit diver to land safely without the aid of a parachute
In 2012, U.K. stunt diver Gary Connery, 42, jumped out of a helicopter at 2400 feet and became the first person to complete a successful wingsuit landing without using a parachute.
Connery dropped from high above Henley-on-Thames, England. He reached a speed of 75 miles an hour during his 40-second fall before landing. 18,500 cardboard boxes that formed a 350-foot runway were arranged by about 100 volunteers, friends and family members.
“It was bliss,” Connery said of the flight in a telephone interview. “It’s a special, humbling day.”
6 The 80-year-old who slipped out of her harness and survived
While we recognize the parachute DID open for 80-year-old Laverne Everett in 2012, her harness didn’t hold, and she too almost didn’t make it.
Her jump took place at the Parachute Center in Lodi, CA. When it was time to take the plunge, she was (understandably) reluctant to jump out of the plane and held on for dear life. Her instructor freed her hands, and the duo tumbled to almost certain oblivion, 13,000 feet below as seen in the video of their jump, which the FAA reviewed. The agency fined the center $2,200 for allegedly improperly tightening Laverne’s harness, which “increased the likelihood the student parachutist would slip from the harness and freefall to the ground.” Watch the harrowing moments here:
7 The pilot who survived a three mile fall into the ocean
In 1963, Marine pilot Cliff Judkins bailed from his crippled and flaming FB Crusader jet into the ocean. His parachute was deployed but didn’t open. Judkins fell three miles without losing consciousness on the way down or when he hit, and despite his injuries swam to a nearby life raft. He waited three hours to be picked up and was treated for both internal bleeding and broken bones before making a full recovery!
8 The novice jumper whose survival was called nothing short of a divine intervention
A novice jumper, mom-of-one Lareece Butler, plummeted to the ground when her parachute became entangled during a skydive. Joos Vos, the skydive manager, said her survival was nothing short of a miracle.
Her boyfriend watched from the ground as she spiraled downward before crashing into a field in South Africa. Butler, then 26, suffered a broken leg and pelvis, concussion and bruising. She later claimed that she had been pushed out of the plane after getting cold feet when she noticed problems with other jumpers’ parachutes, but that allegation was denied by the operator, EP Skydiving Club.