iPhone 4 falls from plane, lives to teach us physics

Air Force combat controller's skydiving smartphone forgets parachute, apparently lands unscathed in forest.

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Eric Mack
2 min read

This phone and case survived a 1,000-foot fall, according to the owner. Any Angry Birds within were certainly even more so by the time they landed. Ron Walker, via iLounge

When U.S. Air Force Combat Controller Ron Walker dropped his iPhone 4 more than 1,000 feet out of a plane traveling 150 miles per hour, he was pretty sure his relationship with his phone (unlike his contract with his carrier) had just been terminated.

Walker is a jump master who makes sure the plane is in the right position before handing parachute jumpers over to the mercy of gravity. When he leaned out of the plane somewhere above North Carolina to take a look at landmarks below, he says, his iPhone slipped out to take on a new role as a real-life math and physics SAT question.

Once back on the ground, and with the help of MobileMe, a friend, and an ATV, Walker says he was soon reunited with the phone, which he declares was completely unscathed in its Griffin Motif TPU case. He originally shared his story and photos with iLounge.

The iPhone "Drop Zone." Screen capture by Ron Walker, via iLounge

Walker says he believes the phone's fall may have been broken by leaves and pine needles in the forested area where it landed (rather than the nearby lake or two-lane highway, fortunately.) The iPhone's survival credibility has also been demonstrated through more wet encounters, but I know a good reason to geek-out algebra style when I see one: if an iPhone 4 is traveling at 150 miles per hour on a 3G network and falls 1,000 feet, when does the plane get to Charleston? And does it drop your call?

Seriously, though, this tale reminded me of the old warning I received about not throwing a penny off the top of a tall building, coupled with the total dearth of human deaths attributed to falling coinage. Me thinks there's more at work here than just a few pine needles...

So I checked in with NASA, which provided me with the primer about falling objects and air resistance I likely slept through in school. There are some rather involved algebraic equations we could use to figure out what happened to that iPhone in the air--if we had all the data, like air density, which we don't.

But here's the thing: When something falls, only two things matter--weight and drag. Weight stays the same, and with an iPhone, it's not much. Drag, on the other hand, increases as an object falls through the air (as does its velocity) until the drag reaches a point equal to the weight of the object. At that point, it stops accelerating.

With something light like a paper or feather, this happens almost immediately. So, with something not too heavy, like an iPhone, it may have happened just a little bit later. In other words, the phone might not have slammed into the forest floor at 3,000 mph. Hell, it may have glided right through those pine needles.

That said, my grandmother still prefers you not throw your iPhones off tall buildings, even if you're still on AT&T.