How to Fall 15,000 Feet, Hit the Ground, and Survive
New Zealand skydiver Michael Holmes survived a parachuting accident in 2006. We asked him for tips.
Illustrations by Ashley Goodall
In December 2006, Michael Holmes jumped out of a plane over Taupo, New Zealand. It was just a routine day for the 25-year-old skydiving instructor who had 7,000 jumps under his belt. But on this day his parachute failed and Holmes fell 15,000 feet before hitting the ground. Somehow, he survived, placing him in an extremely exclusive club of people.
The history of aviation is full of people who've fallen from impossible heights and somehow survived. Examined individually the cases seem like miracles, but there are enough correlations between each to suggest that aside from blind luck, there are some things you can do to improve your chances.
For the simple fact that falling out of a plane is my number one fear, I called up Michael to get some advice.
VICE: Hi Michael, let's start with the day itself. Can you run me though what happened?
Michael Holmes: It was probably the third jump of the day. I had already checked my equipment at the beginning of the day. I checked my gear before I put it on, then I checked my gear again as I was going onto the plane and nothing was out of order. Nothing had been rushed and everything had been done in the exactly the same order of checking, double checking, and getting someone else to check.
We did the jump from 15,000 feet. I jumped with a tandem pair, and flew around them to take different shots. I then opened my main parachute at about 2,000 feet but I instantly started spinning violently. The parachute was caught on something but I knew that there was no way that I could deal with it because I was spinning so fast, so I tried to disconnect. When you disconnect the malfunctioning parachute, it's supposed to disappear leaving you free falling with your reserve. But it didn't and I was still spinning. That left me in a situation I'd never been in before. I instantly knew that I was more than likely going to die because it wasn't something that's supposed to happen.
What did you try first?
I was trying to reach around the back and cut the parachute off with my hook knife but I was spinning so fast I couldn't get my arms up. I thought about pulling my reserve parachute but it was likely to go into the entangled parachute and do nothing. But I had no other ideas, so at around 700 feet I pulled the reserve... and nothing happened. I thought to myself well you've done everything you can and this is how you'll die. It wasn't really a panic, just coming to terms with the situation.
What did you think about at that moment?
Yeah, I thought about saying a message to something, or someone, but I realised I was taking too long. so just I waved in front of the camera and I said, "Alright, bye." Then I hit the ground.
Do you remember anything about hitting the ground?
Nothing whatsoever. The only feeling I had was an emotional feeling which was oh shit, I'm dead . Then I was knocked unconscious. It was only until my friend came over that I realised I wasn't dead but because of the concussion I was in a state of confusion. I was thinking what happened? I was more concerned that, with my level of experience, I hadn't made a mistake.
So you almost woke up feeling embarrassed?
Yeah, it was more confusion until I got the facts. Then there was this element of embarrassment.
You landed in a blackberry bush, right?
Yeah, it was less than a meter high and it wasn't super dense but it was better than hitting than the hard floor or hitting the lake. If I'd landed in the water I would have been knocked out just the same and broken the exact same bones. But my lungs would have collapsed and I would have drowned, because I was unconscious.
What position were you in?
I hit the ground with my left ankle and shattered and my foot pretty much off the leg. Then my left hip, left shoulder, and head hit the ground. That was one of the things that they say contributed to me not dying. You know how when free-runners or parkour people jump off a building and hit the ground, they use the momentum and do some sort of roll to go forward? The fact that I didn't hit the ground vertically deflected the impact off all the other body parts.
Was that deliberate?
No, I didn't land willingly like that because I was expecting to die. I did everything I could to try to survive so I was almost at peace with the fact that I was going to die. Also, I think the fact my body was relaxed might have contributed to my survival.
For the sake of the article, you seem to be suggesting that floppily landing in a bush is ideal?
Yeah a big, dense bush. Going back in history, various air force pilots during the war bailed out of planes and landed in thick trees, which broke their fall. I had a lot of things against me, but then in the last few seconds there were a few things for me: mainly the way I hit the ground, and the fact that it was in the blackberry bush. If the reader was to take something away, then try to think about not tensing up and just go with it.
What did this experience teach you about survival situations? Is there some more general advice?
That's a tough one to answer. I'd just say that with any aspect of life make sure that your risk is calculated. Then if something bad does happen, relax and try to slow the situation down. Think back to your basic training and deal with it step-by-step. On top of that, don't take an option that's going to be gambling another option. For example, I could have opened my reserve straightaway and hoped for the best but I knew that was a risk. I wanted to wait until I was at 700 feet, so it was a well-calculated risk.
Finally, as I mentioned in the intro, this happens a bit. Have you ever met up with anyone who had a similar experience?
Yes, and I made sure that I was not going to be put in the same boat as the same person. There was a guy I had known for years and his incident was entirely his fault and he was like oh me and you are in the same boat, and I was like no we are not in anyway the same boat . The difference being that if we were both driving towards a brick wall, I was dealing with it step-by-step to get the brakes working. He just closed his eyes. Don't give up until you have tried every single option. That's all I'll say.
Follow Julian on Twitter