A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

April 2011   

Survivor

She fell 10,000 feet from a disintegrating airliner, and survived. 

Christmas Eve, 1971.  A Lockheed Electra 4-engine turboprop airliner departed Lima, Peru and was north-east bound for the city or Pucallpa.  Somewhere over the remote, tropical rainforest it encountered severe thunderstorm activity.  The pilots pressed on, presumably under pressure to complete the flight with 92 people on board, all with Christmas plans.   

Severe turbulence buffered the 12-year-old airliner, which was not built to withstand the tremendous stresses of such a storm.  Lightning lit up the dark clouds, the flashes reflected on the concerned faces of passengers.  Suddenly, a loud crack was heard as lightning struck the right wing.  It was quickly followed by a bright flash and fire as a fuel tank lit up.  The wing abruptly bent and snapped off under the stress, sending the airliner into a spinning free-fall.  Despite the best efforts of the pilots, there was no possible way to control the plane, and as the speed built up, it began to break apart.   

Tumbling and spinning from the sky, at about 20,000 feet the left wing and tail section departed the fuselage.  A giant hole was ripped open and everything inside was being tossed out into the storm, including passengers, many still strapped into seats torn from the floor.   

In the window seat in the second row from the back, sat a 17 year old high school student by the name of Juliane Koepcke.  Her mother was beside her, and another passenger, a man, occupied the aisle seat.  Juliane couldn’t know it yet, but she was about to become a miracle statistic.  Although she has no recollection of just how it happened, somehow the three connected seats were thrown out of the fuselage with a force brutal enough to tear the bodies of her mother and the other passenger from their seatbelts, leaving Juliane still strapped in as she tumbled and spun through space.  Aircraft parts, jagged metal, the engines, props, landing gear, other bodies and flaming wreckage plummeted toward the jungle almost two miles below, but somehow she was spared being killed.  

Juliane has recollections of seeing the ground spinning and feeling the G-forces as she fell.  A free-falling skydiver will reach a terminal velocity of about 122 m.p.h.  It’s safe to assume that the airliner seats provided some drag, slowing the young woman to a speed somewhere near perhaps 110 to 115 m.p.h.  Regardless, it was still at a rate from which no one should survive.   

As aircraft wreckage and bodies began to hit the canopy of the thick rainforest, the larger pieces slowed, tending to hang up in the heavy branches of the giant trees.  The three-seat platform that Juliane was a part of, snapped off pieces of trees, bent others, and was generally cushioned on descent through the last couple of hundred feet before hitting the ground hard enough to dig in several inches.  Juliane never woke up until about 18 hours later.   

Juliane’s parents were famous German zoologists, who ran a wildlife research station in Northeastern Peru.  It was there she was heading to spend Christmas with her family.  Instead, she now found herself alone, injured, and lost in the tropical rainforest, many miles from help.  Sometime early Christmas morning, Juliane regained consciousness.  Despite a severe concussion, she was able to piece together at least some of the events that led to her demise, and began to understand her situation.  The ordeal was far from over though, and her survival would continue to be in doubt for another ten to twelve days. 

Searchers were unable to locate the crash site because wreckage was scattered over the jungle, most of the pieces now resting well below the heavy canopy.  Somewhere, there were ninety one bodies, and one person still alive.  Nobody knew that except Juliane herself.  Over the next twelve hours the situation became more and more clear to her, and she adopted a plan to save herself.  She’d been unable to locate anyone from the crash, at least anyone still alive, so knew she’d need to survive on her own.  With fairly minor injuries (a broken collarbone, deep cuts on one leg and an arm, as well as the concussion and trouble with one eye) she attempted to walk from the scene.  Her father had taught her survival skills in the jungle during times she had spent with him at the research station, so she knew that she needed to follow streams as they ran downhill into rivers.  It would be on waterways she could expect to find people.  

A superhuman effort was undoubtedly required over the next eleven days, as she walked, stumbled, thrashed and swam, following a waterway.  She avoided crocodiles, piranhas, poisonous snakes and somehow fought off infections in the wounds from the fall.  Finally, she came upon a camp used by loggers.  The men treated her injuries as best they could, then took her down the river in their boat to a small town, where a missionary pilot flew her to a hospital.   

The young woman, 17 at the time, became known as the miracle girl that fell from the sky.   The ecstasy of her survival was shared by her father.  However, they both were to mourn the loss of her mother.   

Accident investigation

Peruvian investigators determined the following sequence of events leading to the accident:

"About forty minutes after take-off, the aircraft entered a zone of strong turbulence and lightning. After flying for twenty minutes in this weather at FL210 lightning struck the aircraft, causing fire on the right wing which separated, along with part of the left wing. The aircraft crashed in flames into mountainous terrain." 

Juliane, then and now.

Juliane K÷pcke returned to Germany, where she fully recovered from her injuries and continued her studies, eventually earning a PhD degree in zoology like her parents, in 1987. Now known as Dr. Juliane Diller, she specializes in mammalogy,  studying bats in Munich, Germany, and working at the Munich Zoological Center, where she is a librarian.            

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