Surviving a plane crash is lucky. Being the sole survivor of a plane crash is a miracle. But imagine crashing into one of the largest, densest, and deadliest rainforests in the world, the Amazon rainforest.
How long do you think you could survive alone in the jungle without supplies, a flashlight, weapons, or a map? This is a crazy scenario, but this was precisely what happened to 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke in 1971.
LANSA Flight 508
Juliane Kopecke grew up surrounded by animals. Her parents, Maria and Hans-Wilhelm Koepecke, were well-known zoologists working at the Museum of Natural History in Lima, Peru. When Juliane was 14 years old, she and her parents left Lima to establish what became the Panguana biological research station in the Amazon rainforest.
Juliane learned survival skills and that the jungle was not the “green hell” most people believed it to be. Although her parents home-schooled her at Panguana, she was required to return to school for exams. On December 23, 1971, Juliane graduated from the Deutsche Schule Lima Alexander von Humboldt at the age of 17.
Juliane Koepcke’s mother wanted to return to Panguana after she finished her exams around the 19th or 20th of December, 1971. Juliane wanted to attend her graduation ceremony, so the mother and daughter would fly home on Christmas Eve.
Because of Christmas, only one flight was available, LANSA Flight 508. Juliane Koepcke’s father told the pair not to fly with LANSA because it had a poor reputation. It was almost as if Hans-Wilhelm knew something terrible would happen to his wife and daughter on that flight.
The flight was supposed to be less than an hour long, but towards the end of the trip, the weather took a turn for the worse. Juliane Koepcke said there was strong turbulence, and luggage and Christmas gifts kept falling from the overhead bins.
Juliane Koepcke saw a bright flash of lightning that struck one of the plane’s engines, and to her horror the wing broke off. As the aircraft fell from the sky, Juliane’s mother said, “That is the end; it’s all over.”
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Those were the last words Juliane heard before she realized she was not on the plane anymore. She was strapped to her seat, which was falling from the sky. Juliane Koepcke realized she was going to fall into the rainforest and fainted. She fell 10,000ft and crashed to earth, plummeting through the lush canopy of the Amazon and to the ground below.
But, astonishingly, she did not die. When Juliane Koepcke came to, she was on the forest floor and was injured. She suffered an injury to her eye (along with losing her glasses), a concussion, several lacerations, and a broken collarbone.
She was alive, to be sure, but stranded in a rainforest with snakes, poisonous creatures, bugs, and dangerous predators. Though she was in shock from what had happened to her and she couldn’t find her mother anywhere, Juliane Koepcke remembered something her father once told her.
“If you ever find yourself lost in the jungle, look for water and follow it. You’ll eventually find a larger body of water – and, likely enough, human settlement.” With those words in her mind, Juliane Koepcke found water and began walking. She only had one shoe and realized she would be safer in the water than on land with camouflaged snakes and unstable ground.
Juliane Koepcke walked alone in the rainforest for 11 days. During that time, she came across three seats from the plane with dead bodies in them. After inspecting the bodies to see if one of them was her mother, she found a bag of candy and ate it.
That was the only food she consumed during her journey. She couldn’t sleep much, and while the Amazon is hot and humid during the day, nights are rather chilly, and all she was wearing was a sleeveless sundress. Insects attacked the girl, and to her horror, she noticed that one of the open cuts on her arm was infested with maggots.
On day 9 of being stranded in the Amazon rainforest, Juliane Koepcke found a small campsite set up by some fishermen. A small shelter was there, as well as a boat and some gasoline.
In an attempt to remove the maggots before her infected arm became even more at risk, she poured gasoline on her arm. In her memoir and later interviews, she said she was quite pleased with herself after removing around 35 maggots with the gas.
Although there was a boat and gas to make it run, Juliane didn’t take the boat. She said it wasn’t her boat, and taking it from its owners felt wrong. Luckily, after a few hours at the rudimentary campsite, the fishermen returned and were surprised to see Juliane.
They believed she might have been a water goddess from local legends; this goddess was a hybrid between a dolphin and a blonde, white-skinned lady. Juliane Koepcke was able to tell the fishermen in Spanish what happened, and they took her via canoe to a more populated area, and she was airlifted to a hospital.
How Did She Survive?
People have asked for years, “How did Juliane Koepcke survive a plane crash?” This question is even more intriguing because of the 92 passengers and crew on that flight; she was the only survivor.
She is believed to have survived the fall because she was secured in her seat. She was in a window seat attached to two other seats; the general theory is that the seats acted as a parachute, slowing her descent.
When she crashed into the forest, the lush canopy and thick foliage further slowed her fall and worked as a sort of cushion for the falling girl. Juliane Koepcke said that she was never afraid of the rainforest.
She grew up there, and her parents taught her survival skills, like following water in order to find people. Later, it was discovered that 14 other people, including her mother, had indeed survived the crash but sadly died before being rescued.
In 2011, Juliane Koepcke’s autobiography “ls ich vom Himmel fiel: Wie mir der Dschungel mein Leben zurückgab” (When I Fell from the Sky: How the Jungle Gave Me My Life Back) was released. The novel recounts her experience in the crash, her trek through the Amazon, and her life after being treated at the hospital.
Many TV shows and movies have been created about Juliane and her story, but the most accurate portrayal of her experience is the 1998 film Wings of Hope by Werner Herzog. Herzog wanted to make a film about Juliane because her story resonated with him personally. Herzog was supposed to be on that LANSA flight.
He was in Lima looking for locations to film his movie, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Herzog was not on that flight due to a last-minute change of plans, and his life was spared. Juliane Koepcke returned to the crash site with Herzog to film the movie, and rather than it being a traumatic experience, she said it was healing and therapeutic.
Top Image: When LANSA 508 went down, everyone on board was thought to be dead. But somehow Juliane Koepcke survived against the odds. Source: Coral_Brunner / Adobe Stock.