Rachel M. Johnson is a lover of all things pop culture. She's been writing about music and entertainment online for years.
On Christmas Eve, 1971, LANSA Flight 508 departed from Lima, Peru en route to Iquitos. On board were 92 people: six crew members and 86 passengers. The flight took off just before noon on December 24, and had a scheduled stop at Pucallpa, Peru. On board was 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke, a girl travelling with her mother to visit her father, who was working in the Amazonian rainforest. What would transpire on that short yet tragic plane ride would completely alter Koepcke's life, and was truly nothing short of a miracle.
Born in Lima, Peru on October 10, 1954, Juliane Koepcke was the only child of German parents who worked at the Museum of Natural History, Lima. Her father Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke was a biologist and her mother Maria Koepcke an ornithologist.
When Juliane was fourteen her parents established Panguana, a research station located in the Amazon rainforest. There was no electricity, no running water and very little outside influence. Her parents taught her survival techniques that would prove to be critical in her harrowing experience. Lessons included how to successfully navigate over rough terrain, how to deal with poisonous snakes, piranhas and spiders, and how to follow flowing water.
Just 24 hours before boarding that fateful flight, Juliane had received her high school diploma with plans to follow in her parents' footsteps and study zoology.
The Crash of LANSA Flight 508
Intended to be a quick hour-long flight, Juliane and her mother expected to be reunited with her father swiftly. The recent graduate was seated in 19F alongside her mother, and the ride was smooth until dark clouds moved in and the turbulence began to grow intense. The aircraft encountered an area of thunderstorms in addition to the severe turbulence, and later evidence would show the crew decided to continue the flight despite the hazardous weather. Many attributed this due to the pressure to meet the holiday schedule.
The plane was quickly engulfed in a haze of pitch black clouds and flashes of lightning. When a bolt struck the motor, the plane broke into pieces and began disintegrating. In an interview with BBC News, Koepcke recalled the terrifying experience, "When we saw lightning around the plane, I was scared. My mother and I held hands but we were unable to speak. Other passengers began to cry and weep and scream." The plane plummeted into a nose dive, and that's when Koepcke realized she was outside of the plane, strapped to her seat, in a steady freefall.
The Tragic Aftermath
Juliane was still belted to her seat, and fell for roughly 2 miles before impacting the canopy and jungle below. No one is entirely sure just how the young girl was able to survive the fall, but some believe the seat bench she was strapped to helped slow her rate of descent. The canopy and tree coverage of the jungle also would have cushioned her fall and lessened the severity of impact.
Juliane once recalled, "I could see the canopy of the jungle spinning towards me. Then I lost consciousness and remember nothing of the impact. Later I learned that the plane had broken into pieces about two miles above the ground" (BBC News, 2012).
She would fade in and out of consciousness for the next 19 hours, eventually coming to the next morning. Juliane would credit the heavy rainfall for bringing her back to consciousness. The teenager was dressed in only a sleeveless mini-dress and was missing a sandal and her glasses. She had a torn ACL, broken collarbone, partially fractured shin, a strained neck vertebra, one eye swollen shut and several deep cuts on her arms and legs. Despite her serious injuries, Juliane Koepcke's main concern was locating her mother.
Stranded in the Amazon
Koepcke's mother's seat had landed next to her, though it was empty. Desperate to find her mother, she began to search the area around the crash site, crawling on all fours and calling out her name. With all her survival training, Juliane was methodical and moved in small circles, staying close to her seat while memorizing the location and markings on surrounding trees. Though she did not find her mother, Juliane did find a bag of sweet candy, which would be her only sustenance she would have throughout her harrowing experience.
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Eventually she attempted to move into open country, and came upon the sound of dripping and running water. Juliane located a nearby spring, which fed into a small stream. Based on the lessons her parents taught her, she was able to follow the course of the stream to a larger water source, and ultimately civilization. The battered and bruised teenager used her survival instincts to navigate the dangerous jungle, throwing her sandal ahead of her to test the area in front for poisonous snakes and rough terrain. Eventually, Juliane found a spot in the streambed where she could take refuge for the night.
Fight for Survival
After a fitful night of rest, Juliane continued on her trek, pushing forward until she heard the call of the King Vulture. She recognized the call from her time in Panguana and realized there were dead bodies nearby. The next day, Juliane came across the body of three passengers still strapped to their seats. They had landed headfirst, and in her recollection Koepcke once said, "I could tell it was a woman because she had polished toenails, and the others must have been two men, judging by their pants and shoes. I moved on after a while, but in the first moment after finding them, it was like I was paralyzed" (Vice, 2010).
She spent days searching for civilization, and by the 10th day, she couldn't stand properly and drifted along the edge of the water. In what she initially thought to be a hallucination, Juliane came across a boat moored near a small shelter. Inside the hut, the girl found gasoline, which she used to clean the wound in her arm that was infested with maggots. She would spend the night in the shelter, and the next morning was discovered by a small group of fishermen. She was brought to their village and flown to a hospital in Pucallpa, where she was reunited with her father.
Life After the Crash
After being reunited with her father and recovering from her injuries, Juliane assisted search parties in locating the crash site and the bodies of the victims. On January 12, 1972, they had located the body of Maria Koepcke. "Later I found out that she also survived the crash but was badly injured and she couldn't move. She died several days later. I dread to think what her last days were like" (BBC News, 2012).
By March of 1972, Juliane had recovered and returned to school in Lima. Life was stressful for the teenager, as she was hounded by reporters and journalists interested in her story. Her father had suffered a panic attack, and felt it best she return to Germany.
Juliane would go on to study biology at the University of Kiel, following in her parents' footsteps. She graduated in 1980, earned a doctorate from Ludwig-Maximillian University, and eventually returned to Peru and Panguana. She spent eighteen months there and conducted research on bats.
Nearly two decades later, in 1998, film director Werner Herzog approached Juliane about making a documentary on her story. He himself had a surprising connection to the accident: he had been in Peru scouting locations for his film Aguirre, the Wrath of God and was scheduled to be aboard LANSA Flight 508. A last-minute change in his itinerary caused him to cancel his flight.
Herzog offered to take Juliane back to the crash site as part of the documentary, and she agreed. "He helped me towards working through my past. His empathetic questions and his ability to truly listen, as well as the chance to return to the site of my terror, were the best therapy." The hour-long documentary, Wings of Hope, was released in 2000. Juliane worked to preserve her family's legacy and helped expand the size of Panguana research from 460 to 1,730 acres. In 2011, with the help of the Peruvian government, she was able to get it declared a nature reserve, offering it permanent protection.
"I had nightmares for a long time, for years, and of course the grief about my mother's death and that of the other people came back again and again. The thought, 'Why was I the only survivor?' haunts me. It always will."
Sources and Further Reading
- Juliane Koepcke: How I Survived a Plane Crash | BBC News
Juliane Koepcke was flying over the Peruvian jungle when her plane was hit by lightning, she plummeted two miles to the jungle floor and survived.
- The Woman Who Fell to Earth | VICE
Juliane Koepcke was born a German national in Lima, Peru, in 1954, the daughter of a world-renowned zoologist (Hans-Wilhelm) and an equally revered ornithologist (Maria).
- She Fell Nearly 2 Miles, and Walked Away | New York Times
At 17, biologist Juliane Diller was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Amazon. Fifty years later she still runs Panguana, a research station founded by her parents in Peru.
- What It's Like to Be Survivor of Flight | Business Insider
Juliane Koepcke was 17 years old on Christmas Eve 1971, when the plane supposed to fly her and 91 other passengers from Lima, Peru, to Pucallpa, Peru, was struck by lightning and exploded in the air.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rachel M Johnson