In 1971, a teenage girl fell from the sky for three kilometres into the Peruvian jungle, after the plane she was flying on disintegrated mid-air.

After an incident like the Lion Air crash in Indonesia, it might seem fairly unlikely that anyone could survive such a catastrophic event – but 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke survived not just a plane crash, but also a gruelling ten-day trek through the wilderness to find help.

On Christmas Eve 1971, Juliane Koepcke embarked on a flight with her mother from Lima to Iquitos stopping in Pucallpa in Peru, to meet up with her father for the holidays.

Talking about her ordeal for the BBC, Koepcke described her eagerness to get home after a seven hour delay on what would be the fatal LANSA Flight 508.

Advertisement

Both her parents were biologists from Germany and had been studying wildlife in Peru – an upbringing which would factor heavily in her survival alone the jungle after the crash.

The Lockheed Electra turboprop was flying at about 21,000 feet when it encountered an area of thunderstorms and severe turbulence.

"There was very heavy turbulence and the plane was jumping up and down, parcels and luggage were falling from the locker, there were gifts, flowers and Christmas cakes flying around the cabin", she described.

She observed lightning around the plane as she held hands with her mother and other passengers began to cry and scream.

"After about 10 minutes, I saw a very bright light on the outer engine on the left. My mother said very calmly: 'That is the end, it's all over.' Those were the last words I ever heard from her."

The plane began to nose-dive and the noise of engines filled her head completely.

"Suddenly the noise stopped and I was outside the plane. I was in a freefall, strapped to my seat bench and hanging head-over-heels. The whispering of the wind was the only noise I could hear."

 Juliane Koepcke returns to the jungle for the Werner Herzog documentary Wings of Hope. Screenshot / YouTube
Juliane Koepcke returns to the jungle for the Werner Herzog documentary Wings of Hope. Screenshot / YouTube

As she watched the canopy of the trees spinning towards her, Koepcke lost consciousness and awoke the next day alone in the jungle. She shouted out for her mother, but heard no response.

Advertisement

At the crash site, she found a bag of sweets which would become her only food.

"I had broken my collarbone and had some deep cuts on my legs but my injuries weren't serious," she wrote." I realised later that I had ruptured a ligament in my knee but I could walk."

After a lifetime of experiences with her parents in the rainforest, she was well equipped to survive and located a small stream to follow.

Her unlikely survival has been the subject of much speculation, with some theorising that remaining seatbelted into a row of seats had helped to slow down her fall. The impact may also have been lessened due to the thunderstorm's updraft and the thick foliage she fell into.

After four days of walking through the rainforest in only a mini-dress and one shoe, she stumbled across the bodies of three other passengers – although her mother was not among them.

A door from LANSA Flight 508 reused in a building near the jungle. Photo / Benutzer Schoenitzer via Wikimedia Commons
A door from LANSA Flight 508 reused in a building near the jungle. Photo / Benutzer Schoenitzer via Wikimedia Commons

"By the 10th day I couldn't stand properly and I drifted along the edge of a larger river I had found. I felt so lonely, like I was in a parallel universe far away from any human being," she wrote.

She then discovered a boat – after initially believing she was hallucinating – and then a nearby hut containing an outboard motor and a litre of gasoline.

Throughout her ordeal, a wound on her arm had become infested with maggots. Koepcke remembered her father using gasoline to treat an infection on the family dog – "so I sucked the gasoline out and put it into the wound."

Despite the intense pain, Koepcke removed about 30 maggots from her arm, before spending the night at the hut.

"The next day I heard the voices of several men outside", she wrote. "It was like hearing the voices of angels."

Inititally, they believed her to be a kind of water goddess from a local legend – a combination of a dolphin and a blonde, pale-skinned woman.

After introducing herself in Spanish and explaining what had happened, the men treated her wounds, gave her food and took her "back to civilisation".

"The day after my rescue, I saw my father. He could barely talk and in the first moment we just held each other."

Her mother's body was found a few days later and it was discovered she had also survived the crash, but was badly injured and died several days later.

Dr. Juliane Koepcke on a German talkshow in 2013. Photo / Getty Images
Dr. Juliane Koepcke on a German talkshow in 2013. Photo / Getty Images

After the accident, Koepcke moved to Germany and fully recovered from her injuries – and went on to study biology, like her parents. She would eventually return to Peru to research bats.

She avoided media attention following the accident, until she was approached by German filmmaker Werner Herzog in the late nineties. He wanted to make a documentary about her, after narrowly avoiding taking the same flight while location scouting for his film Aguirre, Wrath of God.

The film, Wings of Hope, opens with a scene showing a monument to Koepcke, which was erected right next to the airport. It features a crashing plane depicted in plaster, with a map showing the route she travelled through the jungle.

Describing Koepcke's incredible tale of survival, the filmmaker commented, "She did not leave the airplane, the airplane left her."