Her plane was flying at more than 20,000 feet when it was struck by lightning, breaking apart partially, and it fell into the Amazon rainforest below.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 10, 2022. It has since been updated.
Teenager Juliane Koepcke's life changed forever on December 24, 1971. It was Christmas Eve and she was on a flight home to Germany. The Lockheed L-188 Electra was flying at more than 20,000 feet when it was struck by lightning, breaking apart partially, and it fell into the Amazon rainforest below. Its lone survivor's recovery journey is very extraordinary. According to ABC, Juliane Koepcke, 17, was strapped into a plane wreck that was falling wildly toward Earth when she caught a short view of the ground 3,000 meters below her. As she descended toward the trees in the deep Peruvian rainforest at a 45 m/s rate, she observed that they resembled broccoli heads.
The aircraft Juliane was riding in had been destroyed by a violent thunderstorm, and when it dropped, the row of seats to which Juliane was still fastened whirled through the air. Thinking that strange vision of the lush Amazon trees might be her last, she passed out. Then, though, Juliane awoke. She was now above the canopy of the jungle. On Christmas Day 1971, Juliane managed to survive a 3-kilometer fall to Earth with only minor injuries while wearing a ripped sleeveless minidress and one sandal. In a forest filled with poisonous snakes, mosquitoes, and spiders, she had crash-landed in Peru. The tough young woman, who is the daughter of two eminent zoologists, would have to fend for herself if she wanted to return to civilization.
In order to spend Christmas with her father in Panguana, Juliane and Maria purchased tickets in 1971. While Juliane was eager to attend her Year 12 dance and graduation ceremony, her mother wanted to arrive early. The only alternative available to them was to board LANSA Flight 508, a turboprop airplane with a 99-person capacity, on Christmas Eve. Juliane's Dad was aware of the dreadful reputation of the Lockheed L-188 Electra aircraft and advised them to take a different path, but Juliane and Maria opted to purchase their tickets because Christmas was approaching. Initially, everything seemed okay but before they were supposed to land, the sky suddenly grew black.
Remembering Julianne Koepcke's Wreckage Rider fall today. It took place on Christmas Eve 1971 & she wasn't rescued until January... pic.twitter.com/OTqCgiduso— Free Fall Research (@FreeFallReport) December 25, 2016
Juliane described seeing a massive white light flare over the wing of the aircraft that appeared to send it into a nosedive. Then, both the thunderous roar of the engine and the screams of the other passengers seemed to stop. The New York Times quoted Juliane as saying, "The next thing I knew, I was no longer inside the cabin." Juliane plunged completely alone into the center of the Amazon, likely the only person in her row to be wearing a seat belt. "I was outside, in the open air. I hadn't left the plane; the plane had left me." Despite still suffering severe wounds, Koepcke was able to stay alive in the jungle by herself for more than a week. Locals ultimately located her by following a stream to an encampment, where they were able to treat her before taking her back to civilization. Her extraordinary life later inspired books and movies.
She finally went on to become a mammalogist, and today goes as Juliane Diller. In the meanwhile, LANSA flight 508 is now recognized by Guinness World Records as the deadliest aircraft accident resulting from an in-flight lightning strike. At the time of the Christmas Eve crash in 1971, LANSA's fleet consisted of just one airplane. As a result, the accident caused it to lose all of its planes, rendering it temporarily unable to function. In any case, given its history of poor safety, this was the tipping point, and shortly after, its operating certificate was canceled. Its brief but turbulent history came to an end as a result.