The belief that people falling from a great height are dead before they hit the ground has been rebutted by several contrary outcomes over the years.
For example, rather than being burnt to death in his blazing shell-torn Lancaster on a bombing raid over Germany in 1944, RAF gunner Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade made a jump from 18,000 ft without a parachute, in order to escape a slow and agonizing death!
He landed conscious!
This was because the last few feet of his 120 mph fall were broken by the branches of young pine trees, thick, springy undergrowth and finally deep snow. He was able to move his arms and legs and suffered only a sprained leg!
The ill-fated Lancaster crashed in flames, killing pilot Jack Newman and three other members of the crew. They are buried in the CWGC’s Hanover War Cemetery.
“It was rather like bouncing on a trampoline”
-Sergeant NIcholas Alkemade recalls his nerve-racking experience
Asphyxia, brought about by the speed of the fall, or heart failure through shock were thought to occur long before the final impact.
However, this need not be so all the time as base-jumpers and free-fall parachutists drop several miles before opening their parachutes.
A special case if that of Captain Joseph Kittinger. Because this daredevil set the world record in 1960, for the highest skydive from a height greater than 31 kilometres!
On August 16, 1960, Kittinger made the final high-altitude jump at 102,800 feet (31,300 m), after two test falls. He fell for 4 minutes and 36 seconds, reaching a maximum speed of 614 miles per hour (988 km/h) before opening his parachute at 18,000 feet (5,500 m).
“Lord, take care of me now.”
-Joseph Kittinger jumping from the balloon gondola Excelsior III at 102,800 feet
Incurring yet another equipment malfunction, the pressurization for his right glove malfunctioned during the ascent and his right hand swelled to twice its normal size, but he rode the balloon up to 102,800 feet before stepping off.
“There’s no way you can visualize the speed. There’s nothing you can see to see how fast you’re going. You have no depth perception. If you’re in a car driving down the road and you close your eyes, you have no idea what your speed is. It’s the same thing if you’re free falling from space. There are no signposts. You know you are going very fast, but you don’t feel it. You don’t have a 614-mph wind blowing on you. I could only hear myself breathing in the helmet.”
Kittinger set historical numbers for highest balloon ascent, highest parachute jump, longest duration drogue-fall (four minutes), and fastest speed by a human being through the atmosphere. Kittinger’s record for the highest ascent was broken in 1961 by Malcolm Ross and Victor Prather. His records for highest parachute jump and fastest velocity stood for 52 years, until they were broken in 2012 by another daredevil, Felix Baumgartner.