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The Man Who Fell 20,000 Feet

Chuck Lyons lives in upstate New York with his wife Brenda and a golden retriever named Jack who chases ghosts and barks at shadows.

Sgt. Alan McGee and his turret.

Sgt. Alan McGee and his turret.

On January 3, 1943, a routine flight of eighty-five Allied bombers left England to attack the German submarine pens at St. Nazaire, France.

But what would happen there was from routine.

Over the target, the bombers met heavy resistance from German fighters and anti-aircraft guns. In the fighting that followed, a piece of the right wing of one of the Allied B-17’s—a plane named Snap, Crackle, Pop! —was blown off. Spinning, burning, and out of control, the plane started going down. In the confusion, Sgt. Alan Magee, an American turret-gunner, found himself suddenly outside the stricken plane and tumbling downward—without a parachute. He quickly lost consciousness and fell more than 20,000 feet at speeds up to 120 miles/hr. (193 km/hr.) before crashing into the roof of the Nazaire railroad station.

And survived.

German troops removed McGee from the wreckage of the station’s roof. He was treated, hospitalized, and eventually moved to a German prisoner of war camp where he sat out the remainder of the war. Sgt. McGee’s extraordinary survival was not the only time such a thing happened. Two other men, one British and the other Russian, survived similar free falls during the war.

But, how could they?

Did these men know some secret? Was there something unique about their physical or mental makeup?

McGee

Sgt. McGee at least seemed ordinary enough. He had been born in January 1919 in Plainfield, NJ and enlisted at Newark, NJ shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hoping to be a pilot. He was passed over for pilot training, but because of his size—he was five-foot-six-inches tall and weighed 155 pounds—he was well suited for the tight quarters of a B-17’s ball turret, which protrudes from the belly of the plane. He was trained as a ball turret gunner, assigned to the 303rd Bomb Group, and sent to England. (Because of the tight quarters, the ball turret gunner was forced to leave his parachute outside the turret. Ammunition for the turret’s two M2 Browning machine guns was also stored outside the turret and fed into it.) In England, McGee served on B-17 #41-24629, which its pilot, Capt. Jacob Fredericks, had named. Snap! Crackle! Pop! Before the war, Fredericks had worked as Director of Engineering Development at the Kellogg Company, maker of Rice Krispies breakfast cereal. Snap, Crackle, Pop! was a slogan for that cereal.

On Jan.3, McGee had been aboard Snap, Crackle, Pop! when it took off on its ninth mission of the war and its fourth against St. Nazaire.

"There was not a cloud in the sky, it was a beautiful day," Magee recalled.

B-17 like Snap! Crackle! Pop! damaged and under fire during the War.

B-17 like Snap! Crackle! Pop! damaged and under fire during the War.

The Battle and Fall

But that “beautiful day” brought trouble as the 303rd ran into heavy flak and two dozen German fighter planes over the target, fighting that would end up costing seventy-five airmen lost, and four Allied planes shot down.

Among them was Snap, Crackle, Pop!

The plane had been hit multiple times when McGee, who suffered multiple shrapnel wounds, climbed out of his turret and discovered that his parachute had been ruined in the fighting. He was making his way to the bomb bay when Snap, Crackle, Pop! was again hit by the German fighters, and McGee suffered further wounds.

He knew Snap, Crackle, Pop! was lost.

Magee was then either sucked out or jumped through a hole in the side of the plane, he could not remember exactly what had happened.

“The last thing I remember,” Magee later said, “was…trying to get out of a burning plane.”

The plane was at 22,000 feet (6,700 m).

It would eventually crash near Baule les Pins, France. Two other members of the Snap, Crackle, Pop! crew, who had parachutes, survived landing in the English Channel where they were rescued by German troop and hospitalized. They also became prisoners of war for the remainder of the conflict.

McGee remembered tumbling through the air, praying for help, and thinking that he knew little of life and didn’t want to die yet. But, because of the altitude and lack of oxygen, he quickly lost consciousness. (He may also have lost consciousness for a time while still in the plane). He finally struck the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station, which broke his fall, and was captured hung up in the girders of the station. He had twenty-eight shrapnel wounds to his body as well as injuries from the fall including several broken bones, severe damage to his teeth, nose, and eye, lung and kidney damage, and a nearly-severed right arm.

A German doctor, apparently impressed by the American miraculous survival, gave him priority medical assistance and was able to save his arm.

McGee never found out the name of the doctor

“I owe (him) a debt of gratitude,” Magee later said. "He told me, 'we are enemies, but I am first a doctor and I will do my best to save your arm.’”

He was liberated in May 1945 and received the Air Medal for meritorious conduct and the Purple Heart.

He became known as "Miracle of Saint Nazaire."

Russian Air Force Lt. Ivan Chisov in 1947

Russian Air Force Lt. Ivan Chisov in 1947

Some Others Who Fell

A year before McGee’s free fall, in January 1942, Russian Air Force Lt. Ivan Chisov, fell 23,000 feet (7010 m). He was a navigator on a Soviet Air Force Ilyushin Il-4 bomber when his plane was attacked by Luftwaffe fighters forcing the Soviet crew to bail-out. Chisov intentionally did not immediately open his parachute thinking it was better to free fall quickly through the fighting rather than become an easy target by drifting slowing through it. But for the same reasons McGee lost consciousness, Chisov also passed out—in his case before he could open his parachute. He struck the edge of a snowy ravine, slid and rolled to the bottom, and suffered severe injuries to his spine and a broken pelvis. He was found by Russian cavalry, his unopened parachute still on, was hospitalized, and was able to return to flying in three months.

Then in March 1944, it happened again.

Flight Sergeant Nicholas Alkemade, a rear gunner in Royal Air Force heavy bomber, survived a fall of 18,000 feet.

On the night March 24, 1944, Alkemade, then 21-years-old, was aboard his Avro Lancaster returning from a bombing raid on Berlin when the plane was attacked by a German fighter. In the engagement, Alkemade’s plane caught fire and began to spiral out of control. His parachute gone—it had been burned up in the fire—Alkemade leaped without one from the dying airplane, preferring to die from the fall then in the fire. He fell 18,000 feet, crashed through the branches of some pine trees and landed, like Chisov, in heavy snow.

He had suffered only a sprained ankle and was captured.

Four other members of the Lancaster’s seven-man crew were killed in the crash.

In more recent times, a Serbian flight attendant named Vesna Vulović survived a similar fall. She was aboard a Yugoslav Airlines plane when it exploded—possibly from a Croatian nationalist’s bomb—in flight on Jan. 26, 1971 over Srbska Kamenice, Czechoslovakia. She fell 33,300 feet (10,150 m) and survived pinned in the back section of the plane by a food cart.

She was the only survivor.

There have been others. People who have fallen from planes, from skyscrapers, mountains, and hang gliders. There have been skydiving accidents, mountain-climbing accidents, construction accidents, and attempted suicides. Pregnant skydiver Shayna Richardson crashed when both her main parachute and her reserve chute failed to open, but both her and the baby survived. At least two young boys have gone over the falls at Niagara and survived. A British window-washer fell from the 22nd floor of a building and escaped with only a broken elbow.

Why?

Why these people?

Except for possible help from above, only one thing saved them. Sgt. Magee’s fall was broken by the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railroad station. Lt. Chisov and Sgt. Alkemade landed in cushions of snow. Flight attendant Vulović was trapped in the tail of the plane. The British window-washer lander on the roof of a car.

In all these cases, something had broken the fall.

These miraculous survivors had done nothing to save themselves and there was nothing special or unusual about any of them.

They were just lucky people, very lucky people.