December 24, 1971 in the skies over Peru…
17 year old Juliane Koepcke and her mother, Maria, boarded LANSA flight 508 headed for Pucallpa, Peru. The women were headed home to meet Juliane’s father, Hans-Wilhelm, for Christmas.
Juliane had graduated high school the day before. Her mother wanted her to skip the dance and ceremony to travel home before the holiday rush, but Juliane wanted to stay. When they went to book their flight, the only empty seats were through LANSA airline. Juliane and Maria had been warned against flying with them as they had a bad reputation. In fact, a LANSA plane had crashed the year before killing 99 of the 100 passengers and crew onboard. The women were eager to get home and the flight to Pucallpa was less than an hour. They purchased the tickets, but the plane was delayed 7 hours due to bad weather.
Flight 508 took off at approximately 11am and within a half hour, the passengers realized they were in trouble. Seated next to the window, Juliane was watching as the plane flew into a thunderstorm. At an altitude of approximately 10000 feet in the air, lightning struck and ignited the fuel tank. The plane disintegrated.
Juliane, still strapped in her seat, fell approximately 2 miles to the rainforest below. Her mother was ejected from the seat next to her and Juliane never saw her again.
It was later determined that Maria had survived the crash, but died over a week later. Her injuries prevented her from moving and she succumbed to the elements.
Juliane fared much better. She was knocked unconscious, but came to as she was free falling. She lost consciousness again before hitting the ground. Juliane woke up the next morning at approximately 9am. She had a broken collarbone and cuts to her arms and legs. Her right eye was swollen completely shut due to burst capillaries caused by the sudden decompression of the airplane.
Juliane would later surmise that the seat had acted like a helicopter blade. As it spun on the way down, it decelerated. The dense canopy of trees above the rainforest floor caught the seat and further slowed her fall before it hit the ground below.
Juliane unbuckled her seatbelt and tried to stand up. Because of her concussion, she blacked out several times, but was finally able to get to her feet.
For a year an a half before the crash, Juliane had been homeschooled at her parent’s nature preserve in Pucallpa. Both of her parents were zoologists and her father had taught her survival skills.
Juliane began looking for her mother. She couldn’t locate her, but she found a creek nearby. Remembering a lesson from her father, she followed the creek to a stream for fresh water. The creek would lead her to a river and a river would lead her to civilization.
Juliane found some candy from the crash. This was all the food that she had. At night, insects attacked her and her wounds became infected. A coin sized cut in her arm became infested with maggots.
On January 2, 1972, Juliane found a small boat. At first, she thought it was a mirage, but she touched it and it felt real. There was fuel in the boat’s tank. She siphoned it out and poured it on the wound in her arm to remove the maggots. It was successful in drawing most of them out of her skin. She also learned this trick from her father who had done the same to the family dog.
Juliane crawled up a small hill and found shelter. It was just a roof with no walls. She tried to sleep under it, but the ground was too hard, so she returned to the water’s edge and fell asleep.
When she awoke, she heard voices. Some lumber workers had returned to the shelter. They treated her wounds and gave her some food. The next morning, they loaded Juliane into a boat and traveled 7 hours to their lumber station. They contacted a local pilot who flew her 15 minutes to the hospital in Pucallpa where the was reunited with her father.
Juliane learned that she was the only survivor of the 91 people onboard flight 508. Shortly after the crash, LANSA was shut down.
Juliane grew up haunted by the event. She went to college and studied biology. She specialized in the study of bats and earned her PhD. She married in 1989.
In 1998, she began working very closely with director Werner Herzog on the documentary about her ordeal called Wings of Hope. It was released in 2000.
Juliane published her autobiography called When I Fell From the Sky in 2011. It earned her the Corine Literature prize.
A video summary of this week’s post can be found at