Uncle Hyena (unclehyena) wrote,
Uncle Hyena


Something that has been in my head for a LONG while...


Once upon a time, in a certain kingdom, the crown prince and the court jester became close friends. The prince frequently goaded the jester into saying outrageous things in the king's presence, because the jester was, by long tradition, sacrosanct.

On February 24, 1989, United Airlines Flight 811 was about 50 miles southwest of the island of Hawaii, climbing through 22,000 feet at about 500 miles per hour, when a cargo hatch blew, and nine passengers, eight of them still strapped into their seats, found themselves outside the airplane. None of them were ever seen again.

One day the jester went too far; the king became enraged, and sentenced him to death. The prince pleaded with his father on the jester's behalf, but to no avail; the jester was doomed.

I think about the situation those people found themselves in from time to time. If you were one of them, what would you do? Neither the sudden decompression nor the six gee deceleration would necessarily knock you unconscious, though either might. Staying in your seat might provide some shelter from the wind, but would give you no control at all over the inevitable tumble and roll. Better to get free and take your chances on your own. The wind will shred your clothes; if you manage to stabilize yourself, you will be left with shoes, maybe a belt, maybe a bra. The water will be somewhat less than two minutes away.

The jester apologized profusely, of course, but when it was clear the king would not be moved, he said, "Your majesty, please be aware that, if you choose to execute me, you will be killing the only person in the world who knows how to teach a horse to sing."

You want to hit the water at the lowest possible speed, and in the best possible configuration. These two things conflict with each other. Lowest speed is achieved by proning yourself out, feet apart, arms spread, in the classic spread eagle position. This will keep your speed in the vicintity of 120 miles per hour, but if you hit the water like that, you will die.

This idea intrigued the king, though he was of course skeptical. Questions were asked, and the jester revealed that process would take a year, and that he would have to work with the horse every day. The king decided to give the jester his chance.

The best configuration for hitting the water is (probably; opinions differ) feet first, toes pointed, arms clamped tight to your sides, head tilted slightly back. This is a streamlined configuration, and not aerodymically stable; your center of gravity is in your thorax, and your center of drag is between your thighs. Hold this position too long, and you will hit the water head first at something like 180 miles per hour, and you will die.

And so it came to pass that every day, the jester went to the stables under guard and sang to the designated horse until his voice gave out, at which time he was brought back to his cell. During one of these sessions, the prince visited him, saw how miserable he was, and asked him why he did not just admit that he was a fraud and gets things over with.

The trick is to transition from one position to the other at the last possible moment, in a situation where you have no way at all to judge your altitude (unless, perhaps, the corpse of a less fortunate fellow passenger happens to be floating there as a marker). If you do it perfectly, there is a chance (but by no means a certainty) that you will make it through the surface without serious injury. And THEN you will have get back to the surface without drowning (You WERE holding your breath when you hit, weren't you?).

"And give up a year?" the jester asked. "So much can happen in a year. I might die of natural causes; the king might die, and you would then be able to pardon me..."

If you do EVERYTHING perfectly, and luck is on your side, you will be naked, bruised, and treading water in the Pacific Ocean fifty miles from the nearest land, and no one on earth will have the slightest suspicion that you are still alive.

"And who knows? The horse just MIGHT learn to sing."

Paul Haynie
May 8, 2016

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