This is the story of how Juliane Koepcke survived a three-kilometre fall from a commercial aeroplane before surviving alone in the Peruvian jungle for almost a fortnight.
We’ve covered some mind-boggling travel stories here at DMARGE — take the flight attendant who survived a 30,000-foot fall without a parachute or the plane that survived a close call with a USN submarine missle as prime examples — but this tale of endurance may just be about to trump them all.
On Christmas Eve 1971, LANSA Flight 508 — a Peruvian Lockheed L188 Electra — was en route from Lima to Pucallapa, cruising over the Amazon jungle when it encountered a devastating thunderstorm. A strike of lightning made contact with a fuel tank, setting it alight and leading to a total failure of the right-wing spar.
WATCH: Flight Attendant Survives 30,000 Feet Fall From Plane Without Parachute
Flying at approximately three kilometres above ground level — circa 10,000 feet — the engine failure led to a tragic crash. Flaming debris was spread over a 15 kilometre-square area of the jungle below and all 86 passengers along with 6 crew on the flight tragically died…. apart from one fateful teenage girl.
The sole survivor was a 17-year-old high school student named Juliane Koepcke, whose parents were a German zoologist and a Peruvian ornithologist respectively. Julianne’s mother sat beside her during the crash but, sadly, did not survive the incident. Thankfully, her father wasn’t on board, waiting for his family’s arrival in Pucallpa.
The story of Juliane’s survival is amazing for two reasons. First, she survived the initial fall which, frankly, is a miraculous feat all on its own. She was strapped to her window seat with her seatbelt and, unlike her unfortunate mother who sat in the aisle seat, remained securely fastened to the seat 3-seat-row during its fall.
Spinning around like a maple seed, it slowed her fall enormously before it ultimately crash-landed in the jungle canopy which cushioned her landing. The second incredible aspect of this story is her survival in the jungle after landing despite enduring a broken collarbone, deep cuts, and severe eye injuries.
Given the nature of her parents’ work, Juliane had spent extended periods of time living in the Peruvian wilderness, developing basic survival skills that would become absolutely crucial. Most importantly, she had learnt that all waterways eventually lead to a river…
Dressed in a miniskirt and a single sandal, Jualiane followed a stream all the way to a major river which, after a twelve-day hike, eventually led her to the city of Pucallpa. This incredible story became the feature of Werner Herzog’s documentary film Wings of Hope in 1998 and is available to watch on YouTube.