It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie, but it actually happened in real life. A British airman jumped out of a burning plane at 18,000 feet without a parachute and survived. His name was Nicholas Alkemade, and his story is one of the most remarkable feats in aviation history.
Alkemade was a tail gunner in the Royal Air Force during World War II. On the night of March 24, 1944, he was part of a seven-man crew flying an Avro Lancaster heavy bomber over Germany. Their mission was to bomb Berlin, but they were attacked by a German night-fighter. The plane caught fire and went out of control. Alkemade tried to escape, but his parachute was on fire too. He had to make a split-second decision: stay in the plane and burn to death, or jump and make a quick, clean end of things.
He chose the latter option. He backed out of the turret and somersaulted away. He later recalled: “I had no doubts at all that this was the end of the line. The question was whether to stay in the plane and fry or jump to my death. I decided to jump and make a quick, clean end of things.” He did not feel any fear or pain as he fell. He only felt a strong wind blowing past him. He lost consciousness before he hit the ground.
He landed on pine trees and snow in a forest near the town of Schmallenberg. He was still alive, but he did not know it yet. He woke up after a few minutes and felt a sharp pain in his leg. He thought it was broken, but it turned out to be only sprained. He checked his body and found no other injuries. He was amazed that he had survived such a fall.
He lit a cigarette and waited for help. He was soon captured by two German soldiers, who were skeptical of his story. They took him to their commander, who interrogated him. Alkemade told him the truth, but the German officer did not believe him. He thought he was lying or insane. He said: “The Germans treated me as if I were some sort of curiosity. They could not understand how I had got out of that plane alive.”
The Germans decided to investigate his claim. They went to the crash site and found his parachute in the wreckage. They also found his RAF identity card and his logbook, which recorded his previous missions. They realized that he was telling the truth. They were so impressed by his survival that they gave him a certificate to confirm his claim. The certificate read: “It has been investigated and corroborated by the German authorities that the claim of Sergeant Alkemade, No. 1431537, is true in all respects, namely, that he has made a descent from 18,000 feet without a parachute and made a safe landing without injuries, the descent having taken place on March 24, 1944, at Schmallenberg.”
Alkemade became a celebrated prisoner of war. He was treated well by the Germans and even met some of the Luftwaffe pilots who had shot down his plane. He was transferred to various camps until he was repatriated in May 1945. He returned to England and married his sweetheart, Jean Brown. He worked in the chemical industry after the war and had four children and eight grandchildren. He died in 1987 at the age of 64.
His story has been featured in several books, documentaries, and TV shows over the years. His grandson, Kevin Alkemade, said: “It’s one of those stories you tell someone when they say nothing ever happens to them. Well, you won’t believe what happened to my granddad.”
– Nicholas Alkemade – Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 29 September 2021
– The Airman Who Fell 18,000 Feet Without A Parachute & Lived, War History Online, 7 March 2019
– That time a guy jumped out of a plane at 18,000 feet with no chute and lived, We Are The Mighty, 10 March 2021
– The man who fell from the sky without a parachute and survived, BBC News, 24 March 2021