The plane crash Juliane Koepcke survived is a scenario that comes out of a universal source of nightmares. You're traveling in an airplane, tens of thousands of feet above the Earth, and the unthinkable happens. Be it engine failure, a sudden fire, or some other form of catastrophe that causes a plane to go down, the prospect of death must seem certain for those on board.
When you hear the nearly unbelievable stories of those who manage to survive these horrifying air disasters, it's hard to not consider the astronomical odds involved in their lives being spared. Juliane Koepcke was the lone survivor of the 1971 LANSA Flight 508 plane crash that killed 91 passengers and crew.
After living through an unfathomable three-mile freefall, Koepcke – then 17 years old – survived 11 days in the punishing Peruvian rainforest before finally reaching help. It's a remarkable story of defying the odds, but just how did Juliane Koepcke make it? Like others who have managed to survive in isolation, she did it with some of the most ridiculously hardcore inner strength, determination, and grit that have ever been demonstrated.
She Graduated High School Just Hours Before Takeoff
Juliane Koepcke was born in Lima, Peru, in 1954. Her father, Hans-Wilhelm, was an esteemed zoologist, and her mother, Maria, was a renowned ornithologist. Though she was born a German national, her parents' careers in science had led to them spending much of Juliane's childhood at remote research stations in Peru.
Juliane boarded LANSA Flight 508 on December 24, 1971, mere hours after graduating from her Peruvian high school. A gifted student who graduated early, it was the education Koepcke received from spending time with her parents in the rainforest that would come to save her life.
The Koepckes Knew LANSA Had A Poor Reputation As An Airline
Juliane and her mother, Maria, had been living in Lima while she completed high school. At the time, her father was at a research outpost in Pucallpa, deep in the Amazonian rainforest. In a rushed attempt to spend Christmas together, Maria and Juliane boarded a last-minute flight on December 24th on LANSA Airlines.
Traveling during the holidays – especially last minute – usually means sacrifices; one tends to overlook some things (prices, flight times, etc.) out of desperation. In the case of the Koepcke's ill-fated itinerary, they were aware that LANSA had a poor safety record and had suffered two recent crashes.
In a 2009 interview with CNN, Juliane spoke tragically of their travel decision: "We knew the airline had a bad reputation, but we desperately wanted to be with my father for Christmas, so we figured it would be alright."
She Survived A 10,000 Foot Fall
On Christmas Eve of 1971, Juliane Koepcke was flying with her mother over the Peruvian rainforest when their plane was struck by lightning. Panic began to fill the cabin of LANSA Flight 508 as an engine failed, and the plane started rapidly losing altitude. Koepcke would later recall her mother's grimly resigned final words: "That is the end, it's all over."
At some point, the aircraft broke up in mid air, sending Koepcke and her fellow passengers hurtling down towards Earth from some 10,000 feet. Koepcke crashed through the canopy and landed on the forest floor below, where she survived, merely suffering a broken collarbone and some deep cuts.
OK, But How On Earth Did She Survive That Fall?
The odds of surviving a 10,000-foot free fall are obviously not great. It's speculated that Juliane Koepcke's miraculous feat of survival is due to one of the simplest safety precautions there is – she was wearing her seatbelt.
By remaining strapped in, Koepcke was fastened to an entire row of seats, the shape of which likely slowed her fall. She was also extremely fortunate to land in some very thick foliage, but there has never been a fully satisfying, concrete explanation of just how that fall didn't kill her (not to mention barely even injuring her at all).