The World War II airmen who survived falls from thousands of feet high.

In 1972 a Serbian hostess named Vesna Vulović became famous and is registered in the Guinness Book of Records for having survived the fall of her plane from over 32,000 feet in altitude. But this is not a unique case; several more are known, one of them just a year earlier, the German teenager Juliane Koepcke, who came out alive from an accident in the Peruvian Amazon despite falling from 10,000 feet. But they happened most during World War II.

One of the most interesting aspects of wars is the anecdotal one. And, obviously, the more recent and prolonged they are, the better documented and the more curious stories we know about them. That’s why entire books about World War II have been published on that specific subject and that’s why we’re also going to go into it by taking a look at the unusual cases of airmen who managed to survive incredible accidents. There are a few, due to the numerous missions that were carried out and the frequency of shootdowns.

In all of them there were common factors that explain the miraculous salvation of its protagonists, such as the trees that cushioned the bodies when they fell or a thick layer of snow at the end, always softer than the ground (an article by Catherine Berridge explains it from the point of view of Physics). But, above all, luck was the differentiating element, as other crew members often lost their lives. The case of the Handley Page Halifax of the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) that exploded in the air when it was flying at 4,400 feet over the snowy Ruhr basin in 1944 and of which two of its men survived (Australian Lieutenant Joe Herman and flight officer John Vivash) with only one parachute, may seem exceptional. But there were more, with the following being the most famous.

Nicholas Stephen Alkemade

One of the most famous had an Avro 683 Lancaster as a starting point. It was a type of heavy four-engine bomber that came into service in 1942 and due to its characteristics it was usually used in low altitude night missions, accrediting some 156,000 missions until the end of the war. Therefore, it is not surprising that in its curriculum there appears a second episode of amazing survival in fall: that of the sergeant Nicholas Stephen Alkemade, who lived his impressive experience only one month before the two companions mentioned before.

An Avro Lancaster/Image: Kogo in Wikimedia Commons

He was born in 1922 in the English town of Loughborough (Leciestershire, East Midlands) and served as a tail gunner in a Lancaster of RAF Squadron 115. On the night of March 14, 1944, this aircraft, named S for Sugar, was returning from one of the raids carried out by three hundred aircraft over Berlin when, while passing through Schmallenberg (in North Rhine-Westphalia), it was attacked by a Junkers JU 88, a type of aircraft whose versatility allowed it to be used in various functions; in the sight of the enemy, it assumed the role of fighter.

The Lancaster was engulfed in flames and lost control. The crew were parachuted, but when Alkemade was about to leave his one caught fire and became unusable, so in a matter of seconds he had to face a terrible choice: perish burned or make it faster by jumping, as they were at 18,000 feet of altitude. Feeling the tongues of fire beginning to scorch his clothes and skin, he chose the second option… and he was right because, as we said before, the flexible spruce cups and half a metre of snow saved him.

Some injuries, bruises and burns plus a dislocation in the right knee were all the damage suffered, while his four crewmates crashed with the plane and lost their lives charred. He even had the cold blood of lighting a cigarette, whose puffs alternated with the sound of a whistle to get located. As the lucky survivor was on German territory, he was picked up and handed over to the Gestapo, considering him a spy. But after questioning him and finding the remains of the Lancaster that gave veracity to his unusual story, not only did he become a simple prisoner of war (he was interned in Dulag Luft, a concentration camp in Frankfurt) but he was granted a document certifying his odyssey.

Repatriated in May 1945, at the end of the war he worked in the chemical industry (where he emerged unharmed from two accidents that at first all believed to be fatal) and later participated in some television shows dedicated to recalling protagonists of war episodes related to audacity or survival in special conditions. He died in 1987, a year after another airman who lived an odyssey similar to his: Lieutenant Chisov.

Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov

Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov was born in Bogdanovka, Ukraine, in 1916. During the Great Patriotic War (the name given in the Soviet Union to the confrontation with Nazi Germany in what is known in the West as the Eastern Front) he was assigned to the Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (Soviet Air Force) and assigned to an Ilyushin Il-4, a medium sized but long radius bomber of which 5,256 units were manufactured, in which he flew in January 1942 when it was attacked and hit by several Messerschmidtt Bf 109, the model that constituted the backbone of the Luftwaffe fighter force.

An Ilyushin Il-4 in 1937/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Chisov put on his parachute and jumped. It is not clear how close they were to the ground; his companion, Nikolai Zhugan, who tried to save the plane without succeeding by leaving it at the last moment, when it was barely 1,600 feet above sea level, said that Chisov jumped from about 23,000 feet. In any case, he did not immediately open the parachute because in the middle of the air battle it would have been an easy target for the German pilots, so he decided to wait until he passed the level of the clashes. But he had not foreseen another factor.

Ivan Mikhailovich Chisov in 1947/Image: URSS Military Archives in Wikimedia Commons

The worst thing imaginable happened to him in those circumstances: because of the lack of oxygen, he lost consciousness, so he continued to fall inert without being able to open the parachute. At a frightening speed of between 118 and 150 miles per hour, he crashed into the edge of a snowy ravine and rolled through it until the snow itself stopped him. Soon cavalry troops operating in the area and watching the air battle appeared, but they thought they were going to pick up a discarded body and, to their astonishment, they found instead a living, conscious comrade.

Damaged, yes, with significant damage to the spine and pelvic rupture. In fact, he was in critical condition and spent the next three months in a hospital, undergoing surgery that finally saved him. Chisov was a veteran who accumulated more than 70 missions, so he was not discouraged and asked to be reassigned to combat missions but his condition did not advise it and in the end he was assigned the task of flight instructor. At the end of the war he graduated from the Military Academy and moved to the reserve, dedicating himself to propaganda tasks.

Alan Eugene Magee

And so we come to the last known case of that type. We already had British and a Soviet, so it’s the turn of an American, Alan Eugene Magee, who went through the same thing just one year after Chisov in January 1943. He was the worst off, with very serious injuries, because he did not find snow to cushion the fall, but ironically, he would be the longest-living reaching the age of 84.

He was born in 1919 in a town, Plainfield (New Jersey), which in 1957 would become famous for something less edifying: the adventures of Ed Gein, the murderer who inspired the writer Robert Bloch and then the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock for the character of Psicosis, Norman Bates; its inhabitants would surely have preferred the name of their city to be remembered for the adventure of the airman. In December 1941, as soon as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was known, with the consequent entry of the United States into the war, Magee ran to enlist.

Colored photograph of a B-17 in 1942/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

He was assigned to what between 1941 and 1947 was called USAAF (United States Army Air Forces), integrating as artilleryman the crew of a B-17. This, nicknamed Flying Fortress, was a type of heavy bomber manufactured by Boeing since 1935 that was used both in Europe and the Pacific, delivering a total of 12,677 aircraft (part of them to the RAF). Magee served in the lower turret machine gun.

On January 3, 1943, the Snap! Crackle! Pop! (the name its crew had given to the plane in reference to the amusing drawing that decorated the fuselage: three goblins, Krispies cereal mascots, riding on a bomb) fulfilled its seventh mission as part of the 360º Bombardment Squadron, which attacked in broad daylight the French city of Saint-Nazaire, where there was an important German naval base. He was in it when an anti-aircraft destroyed its right wing, causing the pilot to lose control of the apparatus and it fell spinning on itself. Magee was wounded but was able to leave the turret and was ready to leave the plane.

Then he discovered in horror that his parachute had been hit by shrapnel, rendering it useless. The choice was tremendous: either stay on board and crash or jump anyway. Magee opted for the second and the same thing happened to him as to Chisov, losing consciousness due to lack of oxygen; in his case he would be welcome because he would die without knowing it. But no, he did not die. In spite of falling from 22,000 feet of altitude, he lived to tell it because at the end of the journey there was no snow but the glass roof of the Gare Saint-Nazaire, the railway station.

The current terminal, of contemporary architecture inaugurated in 1995, has nothing to do with that of the time, which was a nineteenth century terminal that was practically destroyed by the bombing because it was located next to the submarine docks. As can be seen in the attached image, it consisted of two lateral stone bodies communicated by another central one with a long glass roof, typical of the moment in which it was built. It was this material, hard but brittle, that attenuated the force of the impact of the airman’s body, making it fall on the ground of the platform in a less violent way. Of course, the crash was terrible anyway and it took its toll on Magee’s physical integrity.

1911 postcard showing the glass roof of the Gare Saint-Nazaire/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The Germans immediately understood what had happened, picking him up and taking him to a hospital. He had many broken bones, perforated lungs and kidneys, severe damage to the nasal septum and eyes, and a partially amputated arm. That was only as a result of the fall, because 28 shrapnel wounds had to be added. In spite of everything, the doctors were able to take him through and the long convalescence served to make his new condition of prisoner of war more bearable.

He regained his freedom in May 1945, being awarded the Air Medal (created in 1942 to reward airmen who had distinguished themselves for their merits or heroism) and the Purple Heart (the oldest award in the United States, given in the name of the President to those injured or killed in combat). Many medals were awarded in those days, as 75 men lost their lives in that mission when 7 planes were shot down and 48 others were reached, which barely returned.

Like Chisov, Magee was not afraid to continue flying and at the end of the war she took a pilot’s license, working in the air sector until his retirement in 1979. In 1993, Saint-Nazaire commemorated the 50th anniversary of that bombing by including among the events the inauguration of a memorial in honour of Magee and his B-17 team-mates. The man who raffled off the reaper in 1943 was reconciled with her in 2003 for a combination of kidney failure and stroke.


Sources: Hechos insólitos de la II Guerra Mundial (Jesús Hernández)/Bomber crew (James Taylor y Martin Davidson)/The miracolous survival of Nicholas Alkemade (Catherine Berridge en Journal of Interdisciplinary Science)/Baling Out: Amazing Dramas of Military Flying (Robert Jackson)/Whistling in the Face of Robbers (Dahn A. Batchelor)/Mission to Berlin: The American Airmen Who Struck the Heart of Hitler’s Reich (Robert F. Dorr)/WWII Miracles: Two Airmen SAVED By One Parachute (Heziel Pitogo en War History Online)/Wikipedia