As far as holiday airport mayhem goes, chances are the 92 occupants (86 passengers and six crew) of the propeller-powered LANSA Flight 508 flying between the Peruvian cities of Lima and Pucallpa had probably all seen worse.
Granted, a seven-hour wait in a bustling pre-Christmas, Hanukkah, and other winter holiday airport for a trip that itself usually only takes an hour in the air might have been frustrating to some of them. At least, before the flight took off.
But for 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke and her ornithologist mother Maria Koepcke that frustration gave way to relief as they began boarding at 11 am the morning of December 24, 1971, and they got themselves ready for the journey home.
The flight would take the pair directly over the most remote parts of the Peruvian rainforest, an unforgiving region known for its extreme environments and dangerous animals. There Juliane would be reunited with her father, world-renowned zoologist, ornithologist and herpetologist Hans-Wilhem Koepcke, for the Christmas break on the family’s nature reserve.
The trip was going to be the bookend to an eventful day for Juliane that saw her attending her high school graduation ceremony only hours earlier with her proud mother in the audience. Both of the Koepcke elders were stationed at a research outpost in the depths of the Amazon jungle, several hundred miles away from Juliane’s school.
Juliane spent part of her childhood with her parents surrounded by the wild dangers of the jungle, including several varieties of poisonous snakes, scorpions, jaguars and biting ants on the land, plus electric eels and piranhas in the water. It was training that would help the teenager during her Amazonian trial-by-fire.
Approximately forty minutes after the take-off of Flight 508, the plane encountered a pitch-black sky hiding a massive thunderstorm. Constant cannon-like thunder quickly enveloped the plane and flashes of lightning briefly illuminated worried faces peering out rain-pelted windows. Despite it being early afternoon, the dense clouds blocking out all signs of the sun made it seem as if the Koepcke’s flight was in the air at midnight.
One of those peering faces belonged to Juliane who, loving the distraction of looking outside whenever she flew, had claimed window seat 19F next to her mother in the second-last row of the plane. As Flight 508 continued into the heart of the storm, the plane began to shake violently.
The cabin became like a deadly version of an old-school Yahtzee barrel, with a dangerous mix of partially full drink glasses, Christmas presents, and luggage pelting frightened passengers.
It would be safe to say that at this point some of the cabin’s occupants were realizing theirs might be the same fate as LANSA Flight 502, which crashed and killed 99 people on board and two more on the ground less than two years earlier.
As she looked out her window and across the plane’s right wing Juliane saw a brilliant wave of white light. What she did not know was she was witnessing a fuel tank being hit by lightning, and the resulting explosion ripped the wing of the plane completely off.
The plane nosedived. Over the screams of terrified passengers-the majority of whom would be dead within moments-and the piercing roar of the plane rocketing towards the jungle below Juliane heard the final words her mother would ever say to her. There was fear in Maria Koepcke’s voice.
“Now it’s all over.”, she said. Juliane was in the midst of a 3050 meter (10,000 foot) free-fall from the plane, still strapped into the bench seating that once also housed her mother and another passenger. With her stomach being painfully squeezed by her seatbelt and the air forcefully retched from her lungs she finally passed out.
The next time she opened her eyes she was surrounded by jungle. Her watch, still ticking despite the hard landing, read 9 am. Her fall through the thick overhead canopy had left her with a severe concussion and a broken collarbone, a scrape on one arm and a deep gash on her leg.
Being nearsighted since the age of 14 Juliane needed glasses, but those were gone now. Her eye was swollen due to burst capillaries-a result of the sudden decompression of the plane’s cabin. Her concussed state made it difficult, but Juliane eventually managed to crawl out from under what was once her seat and slowly begin exploring her surroundings. She was in shock, confused and frequently losing consciousness. It took her half a day before she was stable enough to walk, and then it was with only one of her shoes on – the other was missing. She wanted her mother.
What Juliane obviously did not know is the remains of Flight 508 were now scattered over 5.8 square miles of the Amazon, and the largest rescue operation by air and land in Peruvian history was underway around her. However, unpassable jungle and dense overhead canopy made searchers’ efforts futile. Juliane was in an area where the vegetation was so thick it took hours to walk 100 meters – if you were healthy. Constant helicopter patrols could not even find the wreckage of the plane.
Today, visitors venturing into the Amazon do so with backpacks stockpiled with several outfit changes – shorts for the hot and humid days, rain gear to stay dry in the event of a sudden downpour, long pants for those nights when temperatures drop and enough bug spray to last a lifetime anywhere else on the planet.
The safe traveler might also have a guide familiar with the area, armed with a machete to help clear a path and doubling as protection against wildlife. Despite her injuries and the fact she was wearing a torn mini dress that was about as unsuitable an outfit for the jungle as one could imagine, Juliane began a futile hunt for Maria Koepcke.
During this desperate search, all she stumbled upon was a bag of candy and a soaking wet panettone, a variety of sweet bread. Juliane left the mud-covered panettone where she found it – at this stage, it was completely inedible. With the boiled sweets as her only source of sustenance, she decided to try and find someone-anyone-to help her.
Her calls out to her forested surroundings went unanswered. It was at this moment the teenager knew she was alone as a survivor of LANSA Flight 508. Heeding past advice from her father, Juliane began walking and swimming downstream along a small river, hoping that it would lead to a larger tributary and an area that might have people around.
The 17-year-old kept following the stream, running out of her sweets on day 4 and battling through her injuries that now had maggots living in the open wounds. The scrape on her arm that she had suffered in the fall had become infected with flies laying their eggs in it. The cut eventually became so deep Juliane was forced to try and drag the larvae out with a small stick, unsuccessfully.
After ten long days of struggle through dense undergrowth and vultures attracted by the now-rotting corpses of her fellow passengers scattered in the area circling overhead, Juliane stumbled onto her first signs of human life. Exhaustion had been draining her feeble body by the minute, so when she found herself staring at a small boat equipped with a motor that seemingly appeared out of nowhere, she assumed she must be hallucinating.
Thankfully for her, the boat, and the small container of diesel fuel that was also nearby were both very real. Juliane used the fuel on her arm, which forced some of the newly-hatched maggots closer to the surface of her skin where she could pick them out. It was later that day she discovered a small logging campsite with a roof-covered hut that had a palm bark floor, and she took the opportunity to try and get some sleep.
Juliane was found the next morning by three Peruvian men who used the camp for their job as foresters. Initially, they thought the disheveled and distraught girl in front of them with bloodshot eyes and clearly injured was a water spirit locals called Yemanjá and were afraid to approach her as a result. It was as though Juliana couldn’t buy herself a break at this point.
There she was with her shredded mini dress, covered in mud and filth, barefoot with broken bones and maggots falling off of her, having to explain to her potential rescuers that she was, in fact, a human being. A human being who had somehow managed to survive ten whole days in the jungle after a plane crash and who was now incredibly hungry, injured, grieving, and needing help with her wounds.
Finally convinced that Juliane was a human being rather than a water spirit, the men fed her and tended to her injuries as best they could. They took her on the seven-hour journey by boat to a nearby village where an area pilot flew her to a missionary-run hospital in Pucallpa, Peru. The next day, after what most people would classify as an ordeal that is about as close to hell on earth as someone will ever experience Juliana Koepcke, the lone survivor of LANSA Flight 508, was finally reunited with her father.
In the days that followed her jungle ordeal, Juliane’s story quickly spread across the globe. The press, desperate for a quote from the Koepckes or inside information that hadn’t already been made public, started to go to extremes to gain access to Juliane. Her first interview was published later that year in the German magazine Stern, which paid Juliane’s father for the rights to the story.
This fueled the demand for Juliana’s attention, a pressure that was beginning to take its toll on the young girl. As Juliane struggled to find balance in a life where her mother was horrifically taken from her, she was also dealing with reporters who were going so far as to masquerade as nurses so they could talk with her.
In 1974 Juliane’s fall from the sky and her Amazon ordeal were brought to the big screen in the film Miracles Still Happen, made with the support of the Koepckes. By the end of that experience, being in the public eye was not something Juliana wanted, and she quietly focused on her private life away from the prying eyes of the press and public. It was needed – the constant cavalcade of questions from crash investigators and the media hadn’t allowed Juliane to mourn the death of her mother properly.
Vivid nightmares are still something that plague Juliane to this day, who moved back to Germany to earn her doctorate from Ludwig-Maximilian University. Her father became a recluse who, according to Juliane, never fully recovered from the loss of his wife.
He passed away at the age of 87 in Hamburg, Germany. As a mammalogist, Juliane returned to Peru, focusing her studies specifically on bats. In 2011, she published a book, When I Fell From the Sky, giving a first-person account of her experiences. Juliane married in 1989 and is now back living in Germany.
- Williams, S., 2012. Sole survivor: the woman who fell to earth
- Edwards, C., 2016. How one little girl survived falling from the sky
- MacDonald, K., Survival Stories: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
- Tasch, B., 2015. Woman describes what it was like to be the only survivor of a flight obliterated by a thunderstorm
- Littlewood, T., 2010. The Woman Who Fell to Earth
- ‘Wings of Hope‘, documentary by Werner Herzog.