So what do you do if you fall out of a plane at 35,000 feet, as is apparently the case with “How to Fall 35,000 Feet—And Survive” in the February issue of Popular Mechanics? I came across this story on and almost skipped it, thinking the “helpful hints for disasters” genre has been done, and overdone.

But reporter Dan Koeppel does virtual disaster very well. It’s tough to use the second person “you” so relentlessly without driving the reader away, but here, details actually draw the audience in, even as they induce panic: “You’ll be unconscious soon, and you’ll cannonball at least a mile before waking up again. When that happens, remember what you are about to read.”

Koeppel uses four scenes, each of which provides backstory and instructions as he counts down the time and distance to impact. His approach is a good reminder of how a tight structure moving toward a focused climax creates urgency.

His upbeat, Heloise-like tone plays against the gruesome information he provides, such as the fact that children have a greater survival rate for big falls, perhaps because their “reduced surface area decreases the chance of impalement upon landing.” From waking up floating in mid-air to a celebratory cigarette on the ground, Koeppel applies a “you can do it—maybe” tone that makes for funny, informative, and nausea-inducing reading all at once. Now where’s that airbag?

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