Julian Koepcke: The Lone Survivor Of A 10,000-feet Crash Into The Peruvian Rainforest
When 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke boarded a plane on Christmas Day in 1971, she expected the flight to go smoothly. However, she soon found herself in a wild thunderstorm, falling toward the earth at 45 meters per second.
But surprisingly, she survived the 3km fall to earth and her 11-day trek through the Peruvian rainforest. How did this happen, and what became of Juliane Koepcke?
The Jungle Child
Renowned German zoologist and scientist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke and Maria Koepcke gave birth to Juliane in 1954. The couple lived in a biological research station, Panguana, where they studied tropical birds.
Juliane’s parents chose to live in the jungle and immerse themselves in the lush rainforest’s ecosystem. She grew up in the rainforest and was homeschooled in her early years at Panguana by her parents. This led her to describe herself as a ‘jungle child.’
Life Lessons In The Rainforest
Speaking about growing up in the jungle, Juliane once said, “I learned a lot about life in the rainforest, that it wasn’t too dangerous. It’s not the green hell that the world always thinks.”
This knowledge would save her after the plane crash in 1971. Days before the incident, 17-year-old Juliane, who had been schooling in Lima, the Peruvian capital, booked a flight to Panguana with her mother, Maria.
Juliane And Maria Wanted To Spend Christmas As A Family
The mother and daughter wanted to return to Panguana to spend the Christmas holiday with Hans-Wilhelm. Maria wanted to get to the research station early. But she had to delay the trip because Julaine, like any typical teenager, wanted to attend the Year 12 dance and graduation ceremony.
As a result, their only option was to leave on Christmas eve on the ill-fated LANSA Flight 508. The aircraft (Lockheed L-188 Electra) was a turboprop airliner that could carry up to 99 people.
A Plane With A Bad Reputation
Hans-Wilhelm was weary of his wife and child using the Lockheed L-188 Electra plane because it had a history of crashes. The Lockhead L-188 Electra is a low-wing airliner powered by four turboprops.
The Lockheed Corporation manufactured turbo airliners between 1957 and 1961. They built 170 aircraft, of which 58 crashed or experienced extreme malfunctions mid-air. So, it is understandable that Hans-Wilhelm was concerned about the safety of his wife and child.
There Were Few Alternatives
The zoologist asked his wife and child to find an alternative. However, finding an alternative was hard as Christmas was approaching, so Juliane and Maria bought tickets for LANSA Flight 508. The plane took off from the airport successfully and everything was smooth sailing.
Juliane and her mother sat in the second row from the back. The then-teenager took the window seat while Maria sat in the middle.
Things Went South 15 Minutes To Their Destination
A flight attendant served the mother and daughter sandwiches, and as they ate, they looked at the rainforest beneath them through the window. However, 15 minutes from where they were to land, things changed. First, the sky turned black.
Juliane recalled the moment in her memoir The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. She wrote, “Daylight turns to night, and lightning flashes from all directions. People gasp as the plane shakes violently.”
The Stuff Of Nightmares
Juliane continued, “Bags, wrapped gifts, and clothing fall from overhead lockers. Sandwich trays soar through the air, and half-finished drinks spill onto passengers’ heads. People scream and cry.”
While this happened, Maria, who was never a fan of airplanes, murmured, “I hope this goes alright.” But as mother and daughter soon realized, things were far from okay. What followed was a massive flash of light over the plane’s wing.
A Nosedive Into Oblivion
The plane then took a nosedive toward the rainforest. Juliane recalled her mother saying eerily calmly, “Now it is all over.” If Maria said anything else, her daughter could not hear her as the horrified screams of other passengers filled the air.
The thundering roar of the airplane engine vanished, and the next thing Juliane knew, she was outside the cabin, freefalling from the sky.
The Plane Left Her
In a 2022 interview, Juliane said, “I was outside, in the open air. I hadn’t left the plane; the plane had left me.” The then-teenager was still harnessed to her seat as she had her seatbelt on, and the row of seats twirled in the air as she fell.
While falling, Juliane thought that the dense Peruvian rainforest appeared like heads of broccoli. She was 3,000 meters above the ground.
Juliane Thought the Rainforest Was Her Last View
As Juliane slowly lost consciousness, she believed the Amazon trees would be the last thing she saw. However, the universe had other plans for her, as she survived the 3km fall to earth with minor injuries.
Juliane, wearing a torn sleeveless mini-dress and one sandal, regained consciousness. Although alive, she suffered a broken collar bone, cuts to her shoulder and calf, and a concussion, which made her dizzy and confused.
She Was All Alone
Juliane took in her surroundings and realized she was not safe yet. But after what she just went through, she had no choice but to sleep where she crash-landed. She wrote about it in her memoir, “I lay there, almost like an embryo for the rest of the day and a whole night, until the next morning.”
When Juliane awoke, her priority was to find her mother. But she must first determine where she landed.
For The Love Of Animals
Thankfully, Maria was a passionate animal lover, and she taught her daughter how to identify animals with sound. Juliane, now a biologist, identified bird calls and croaks of frogs. She recalled, “I recognized the sounds of wildlife from Panguana and realized I was in the same jungle.”
This meant she was not far from home, but it also signified she was in the world’s biggest rainforest. One wrong turn or decision could send her farther into the jungle.
A Combination of Dangerous Animals and Plants
The Peruvian rainforest is famous for dangerous animals like the poison dart frog, the Amazonian giant centipede, the Brazilian wandering spider, the green anaconda, etc. Juliane also had to avoid the many poisonous plants in the rainforest, which meant she had limited food options.
In her memoir, she wrote, “There was almost nothing my parents hadn’t taught me about the jungle. I only had to find this knowledge in my concussion-foggy head.”
Disembarking From Her Seat
Juliane had to free herself from her plane seat. After several attempts, she succeeded and stumbled forward when the seat belt latch came undone. She saw a packet of lollies, and picked it up, then started on a route she hoped would take her home.
Juliane’s parents had taught her to walk along a river if she was ever lost. Also, Hans-Wilhelm had warned his daughter that piranhas were dangerous in the shallows, a lesson she remembered while floating mid-river.
Juliane Hoped to Find Other Survivors
While moving through the river, Juliane hoped to find other people, primarily survivors. However, this did not happen for a while. Also, the rainforest was in the middle of its wet season, so it kept raining.
The constant rain meant everything in the jungle was too damp for the sole survivor to light a fire. Also, there were no fruits on trees, and since most of what grew in the rainforest was harmful, Juliane had to keep her hands off what she did not recognize.
The Call of the King Vultures
Four days into her trek, Juliane heard a sound that filled her with dread — the call of the king vultures. King vultures only circle in great numbers around carcasses.
This vulture species has a habit of displacing smaller vultures from a carcass and eating its fill while they wait, hence its name. Following the sound of the birds, Juliane arrived at a ghoulish scene, where she found three passengers from the plane.
None of the Passengers Were Her Mother
The passengers were still strapped to their row of seats. It appeared they struck the ground forcefully and became half buried in the earth. One of the passengers was a woman, and Juliane checked her toes to ensure it was not her mother.
Writing about that moment, she said, “They were polished, and I took a deep breath. My mother never used polish on her nails.”
Unseen Beneath the Canopy of the Rainforest
While at the scene, Juliane heard rescue planes searching, but the team could not see her because of the rainforest’s thick canopy. Also, she was starving and weak, sunburned, and there seemed to be no hope.
Juliane continued the trek; by day ten, she was ready to give up. She wrote in her book, “Ice-cold drops pelt me, soaking my thin summer dress.”
Bleak Nights and a Sense of Abandonment
Juliane added, “The wind makes me shiver to the core. On those bleak nights, as I cower under a tree or in a bush, I feel utterly abandoned.” But soon, she found her salvation at the bend around the river.
She saw a small hut with a palm-leaf roof and a can of petrol. While trekking through the Amazon, the wound in her shoulder had gotten infected with maggots.
Petrol and Tiny Little Maggots
Juliane recalled her father using petrol on a family pet injury and pouring it over the cut on her shoulder. She said, “The pain was intense as the maggots tried to get further into the wound.”
Juliane pulled about 30 maggots from the wound and felt very proud of herself. She spent the night in the hut and woke the following day to the sound of male voices.
The Voice of Angels
Juliane said it was like hearing the voice of angels, prompting her to hurry out of the hut. She found local Peruvian fishermen, but they were terrified seeing the dirty, skinny, blonde girl and stopped talking.
The biologist said of the moment, “They thought I was a kind of water goddess — a figure from a local legend who is a hybrid of a water dolphin and a blonde, white-skinned woman.”
Rescued at Last
But again, Maria and Hans-Wilhelm taught their daughter an important skill — speaking and understanding Spanish. As a result, Juliane could talk to the men in their local dialect. She told them, “I’m a girl who was in the LANSA crash. My name is Juliane.”
The men treated Juliane’s wounds, gave her something to eat, and took her back to civilization the next day. A day after returning to civilization, she reunited with her father.
A Not-So-Happy Reunion
Hans-Wilhem could barely talk when he reunited with his daughter, and they held onto each other in the first moments. The reunion brought hope that Maria might have survived, and the zoologist frantically searched for news in the following days.
However, it was not to be another happy union. On January 12th, 1972, the search team found Maria’s body. Later, Juliane discovered that her mother had initially survived the plane crash.
Maria’s Injuries Kept Her Immobile
But unlike her daughter, Maria sustained severe injuries, couldn’t move, and passed away several days after. She said, “I dread to think what her last days were like.”
Maria and her daughter were not the only initial survivors of the LANSA flight 508. Fourteen people survived the initial impact but could not leave the rainforest like Juliane because of their injuries. As a result, they passed away before the rescue team found them.
What Caused the Crash?
This made Juliane the sole survivor of LANSA flight 508. Aviation officials listed the cause of the crash as the intentional decision of the airline to ignore the warnings of adverse weather conditions and allow the plane to leave the airport.
The LANSA flight 508 crash is the worst lightning-strike incident in modern history. Juliane later discovered that the plane she boarded with her mum was built with only spare parts from other planes.
Why Juliane Survived
Also, in the years after the accident, Juliane had wondered how she became the only survivor. The biologist has developed several theories, including the possibility of the powerful updraft of the thunderstorm slowing her descent.
She also wondered if the thick canopy of the leaves cushioned her fall. In an interview, Juliane said, “The jungle caught me and saved me. It was not its fault that I landed there.”
An Exclusive Club of Airplane Accident Survivors
Juliane is not the only one to have survived an airplane crash. In 1936, Linda McDonald made it out alive from a Skyways sightseeing plane that went down near Pittsburgh. Like the biologist, she was 17-year-old, and the sole survivor of the ten people on board, including her boyfriend.
The Skyways sightseeing plane crash is the earliest known aviation incident with a sole survivor. A year after Juliane’s accident, 23-year-old Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulovi survived the ill-fated JAT Flight 367.
The World’s Longest Fall From a Plane
Vesna survived what the Guinness World Record called “the world’s longest fall from an airplane without a parachute.” She fell from 33,330 feet, which equals 10,160 meters and 6.3 miles.
The then-flight attendant’s plane was in mid-air when the baggage compartment exploded, causing it to fall near Srbská Kamenice, Czechoslovakia. Vesna landed in thick snow, and while on the ground, her scream got the attention of Bruno Honke.
Saved By a Food Cart
Bruno served as a medic during the Second World War and used his experience to keep Vesna alive until help arrived. Air safety investigators said the flight attendant survived primarily due to getting trapped by a food cart in the airplane’s fuselage.
The investigators believe that when the fuselage separated from the plane and fell toward the ground, it landed on the snow-covered mountainside. This cushioned the impact of the fall.
Severely Injured But Alive
Furthermore, the then-flight attendant’s doctors concluded that her blood pressure caused her to pass out when the plane’s cabin depressurized. As a result, her heart did not burst upon hitting the ground.
Vesna suffered a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae, legs, ribs, and a fractured pelvis. As a result, after getting rescued, she spent days in a coma and became temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.
Life Goes On
However, Vesna recovered after ten months but had to walk with a limp for the rest of her life. Also, she could not remember the crash or the events in the first month after the incident.
Her experience did not put her off flying planes, and she was eager to return to her job as a flight attendant with Jat Airways. But the company thought being on flights would attract too much attention and placed Vesna on a desk job.
A National Icon
Vesna later became a national icon after being honored by Josip Broz Tito, the president of her home country, Yugoslavia. She passed away in December 2016 at 66, having lived a full life as a nationalist.
Juliane, on the other hand, is alive and has lived a fulfilling life since she escaped the rainforest. She returned to Germany after the incident, and following her parent’s footsteps, she studied biology at the University of Kiel.
Juliane graduated in 1980 and later got a doctorate from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. She returned to Peru for mammalogy research, focusing on bats. In 1989, the biologist married Erich Diller, an etymologist.
Although Juliane became uneasy about flying as it brought back the memory of her mother’s untimely demise, she returned to Panguana. She became the director and primary organizer of international expeditions after her father passed away.
The Fulfillment of a Vow
Juliane did this to fulfill her vow to herself during her solitary trek through the rainforest. She revealed in an interview, “On my lonely 11-day hike back to civilization, I made myself a promise. I vowed that if I stayed alive, I would devote my life to a meaningful cause that served nature and humanity.”
The biologist believes that mother nature played a role in saving her, and she plans to return the favor while she walks the Earth.
Once a Jungle Girl, Always a Jungle Girl
Also, Juliane has a deep love for the rainforest. In her words, “The jungle is as much a part of me as my love for my husband, the music of the people who live along the Amazon and its tributaries, and the scars that remain from the plane crash.”
It has been more than 50 years since LANSA flight 508 went down. But Juliane is still here, fighting for the causes she believes in and a living-breathing example that miracles happen and second chances are possible.