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Admit it: You want to survive an airline disaster. You aren't looking for a disaster to happen, but if it does, you see yourself coming through it. The good news is that you're not out of touch with reality—you can do it. Sure, you'll take a few hits, and you can count on some sweaty flashbacks later, but you'll make it. You'll sit up in your hospital bed and meet the press. If you are considerate, you will keep God out of your public comments, knowing that it's unfair to sing His praises when many of your fellow passengers lack the means to offer an alternative view.

Let's say your jet blows apart at 35,000 feet. You exit the aircraft and begin to descend independently. Now what?

Two Obstacles: Height and Acceleration
First of all, you're starting off a full mile higher than Everest, so after a few gulps of disappointing air you're going to black out. This is not a bad thing. View it as a brief respite from the ambient fear and chaos. At about 15,000 feet, you’ll come to and begin the final phase of your descent, which will last about a minute. This is a time of planning and preparation. Look around you. What equipment is available? Look carefully. Perhaps a shipment of folded parachutes was in the cargo hold, and the blast opened the box and scattered them. One of these just might be within reach. If so, grab it, put it on, and hit the silk. You're sitting pretty.

Other items can be helpful as well. Think of the maple seed as it gently wafts to earth. Can you find a proportionate personal vehicle—some large, flat, aerodynamically suitable piece of wreckage? Yes? Mount it and ride. Remember: Molecules are your friends. You want molecules of solid matter hitting atmospheric molecules in order to reduce your rate of acceleration: thirty-two feet per second per second.

Just how fast are you going? Imagine standing atop a train going 120 mph, and the train goes through a tunnel but you do not. You hit the wall above the opening at 120 mph. That's how fast you will be going at the end of your fall. Make no mistake: You will be "motoring."

Every Cloud You Plummet Through Has a Silver Lining
Much will depend on your attitude. Don't let negative thinking ruin your descent. If you find yourself dwelling morbidly on your discouraging starting point of seven miles up, think of this: Twenty feet is the cutoff for fatality in a fall. That is, most who fall from twenty feet or higher die. Twenty feet! It's nothing! Pity the poor sod who falls from such a "height." What kind of planning time does he have? Think of the pluses in your situation. For example, although you fall faster and faster for the first fifteen seconds or so, you soon reach "terminal velocity"—the point at which atmospheric drag resists gravity's acceleration in a perfect standoff. Not only do you stop speeding up, but because the air is thickening as you fall, you actually begin to slow down. With every foot that you drop, you are going slower and slower. There's more: When parachutists focus on a landing zone, sometimes they become so fascinated with it that they forget to pull the ripcord. Since you probably have no ripcord, "target fixation" poses no danger. Count your blessings.

Trees: Not All Are Alike
Once you have mastered your fears, you will think: trees. It's a reasonable thought. After all, doesn't the soothing "Rock-a-Bye, Baby" tell a tale of survival? You will want a tall tree with an excurrent growth pattern—a single, undivided trunk with lateral branches, delicate on top and thicker as you cascade downward. A conifer is best. The redwood is attractive for the way it rises to shorten your fall, but alas; the redwood's lowest branches grow dangerously high from the ground. Having gone 35,000 feet, you don't want the last 50 feet to ruin everything.

The perfectly tiered Norfolk Island pine is a natural safety net, so if you're near New Zealand, you're in luck. When crunch time comes, elongate your body and hit the tree limbs at a perfectly flat angle as close to the trunk as possible. Think!

Snow: Nature’s Icy Pillow
Snow is good—soft, deep, drifted snow. Snow is lovely. Aim for snow. Remember that you are the pilot and your body is the aircraft. By tilting forward and putting your hands at your side, you can modify your pitch and make progress not just vertically but horizontally as well. As you go down 15,000 feet, you can also go sideways two-thirds of that distance—that's two miles! Choose your landing zone. You be the boss.

If your search discloses no trees or snow, the parachutist's "five-point landing" is useful to remember even in the absence of a parachute. Meet the ground with your feet together, and fall sideways in such a way that five parts of your body successively absorb the shock, equally and in this order: feet, calf, thigh, buttock, and shoulder. 120 divided by five equals 24. Not bad! Twenty-four miles per hour is only a bit faster than the speed at which experienced parachutists land. There will be some bruising and breakage but no loss of consciousness to delay your press conference. Just be sure to apportion the 120-mph blow in equal fifths. Concentrate!

Heroes Who Fell to Grace
Think of others who have gone before you. Think of Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant who in 1972 fell 33,000 feet in the tail of an exploded DC-9 jetliner. She landed in snow and lived. Vesna knew about molecules.

Think of Joe Hermann of the Royal Australian Air Force, blown out of his bomber in 1944 without a parachute. He found himself falling through the night sky amid airplane debris and wildly grabbed a piece of it. It turned out to be not debris at all, but rather a fellow flyer in the process of pulling his ripcord. Joe hung on and, as a courtesy, hit the ground first, breaking the fall of his savior and a mere two ribs of his own. Joe was not a quitter. Don't you be.

Think of Nick Alkemade, an RAF tailgunner who jumped from his flaming turret without a parachute and fell 18,000 feet. When he came to on the ground and saw stars overhead, he lit a cigarette. He would later describe the fall as "a pleasant experience." Nick's trick: fir trees, underbrush, and snow. But in one important regard, Nick is a disappointment. He gave up. As he hurtled to German soil, he concluded he was going to die and felt "a strange peace." This is exactly the wrong kind of thinking. You cannot plan aggressively while experiencing "a strange peace."

To conclude, you must resolve to survive the second your jet explodes. Here are some encouraging words you can repeat on your way down.

"Keep a-goin'." —Frank L. Stanton

"Failure is not an option." —Ed Harris, as the guy in "Apollo 13" who says, "Failure is not an option"

"Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops—at all."
—Emily Dickinson

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