Shweta Krishnan Writing Sample - Explainer Surviving a Fatal Fall A few minutes before Avatar winds to a close, the

villain, Col. Miles Quadritch, jumps off a burning aircraft and lands safely on Pandora, thanks to his humanoid vehicle. His fall raises a cloud of dust – and a question. Is it possible to fall from a burning plane – or even a building- and survive it in real life? Yes, sometimes. Scientists cannot explain how some bodies withstand the force of impact while others don’t. They think the height of a fall, the surface on which a person lands and the jumper’s general health could influence the outcome. Experts believe that it is best to land on our feet. Human feet are adapted to cushion a fall and the thigh and calf muscles are built to absorb the shock of the impact. But a fall from anything greater than the third floor can be potentially fatal, even if the person lands on his feet. In these accidents, the heel bone breaks first. The force of the impact fractures the bones in the hip and cause bruises between the thighs. In very hard falls, the shock wave traveling up the spine fractures the base of the skull. In some cases, the broken pieces of the skull bone injure the respiratory center in the brain stem and cause instant death. An autopsy often reveals multiple internal injuries: almost always a ruptured aorta, and sometimes lacerations in the guts and heart. Studies show that landing on the head is almost always fatal. Landing on the back, on the other hand, results in injuries of the spinal cord and paralyzes a person’s limbs. Landing on the butt minimizes these injuries. The muscles and fat in the area act as shock absorbers and protect the spine. But this could mean that very thin people, with no fat on their butts are more likely to suffer spinal injuries. Surprisingly, while most people would plummet to their death from the third floor of a building, some Second World War pilots have jumped from burning planes and survived falls of more than 20,000 feet. Scientists do not have an explanation for these incidents but believe that these pilots must have manipulated the physics of a free fall to their advantage. When a person falls from a plane, two opposing forces act on his body: gravity pulls him downward and air pushes upward against his falling body. When the two forces balance each other, the person begins to fall at a constant speed, called the terminal velocity. This speed

depends on the weight of a person, but can be decreased by stretching the limbs and letting the clothes flap in the air. This increases the upward force that the air can exert, and slows the fall. Also, paratroopers are taught to land by grounding the balls of the feet and the heels simultaneously. This, according to studies, helps distribute the force of the impact equally to all leg muscles and prevents excess strain on one. Another paratrooper trick can come in handy. As soon as his feet touch the ground, a paratrooper uses the momentum to roll on the ground. This dissipates the force of impact and protects the body against fractures. As for the villainous Colonel from Avatar, Pandora’s low gravity could have slowed down his fall. But then again, in the celluloid world, he would not have to worry about fractures, ruptured blood vessels and terminal velocity. At least, not when the story can still use him.


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