How Juliane Koepcke Survived the Crash of LANSA Flight 508

On Christmas Eve in 1971, a young woman's life changed forever when she found herself plummeting through the sky in the midst of a thunderstorm. That woman was Juliane Koepcke, the sole survivor of a tragic plane crash in the Peruvian rainforest.

The fact the 17-year-old survived the fall from the crumbling plane was miraculous in itself, but what came next tested Koepcke even further.

The LANSA Crash

Juliane Koepcke was born in 1954 to German zoologists Maria Koepcke and Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke.

When she was 17 years old, she and her mother boarded LANSA Flight 508 in Lima, Peru, traveling to meet Koepcke's father at the Panguana research station in Peru. Maria and Hans-Wilhelm had founded the station together just a few years before, in 1968.

However, their journey took a devastating turn when the plane, en route to Pucallpa, Peru, was hit by a lightning strike, causing it to break apart midair.

Amid the thunderstorm, Koepcke fell about 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), still strapped into her plane seat, into the dense Amazon jungle. Later, she recalled thinking that the tops of the trees resembled heads of broccoli as she was plummeting to the Earth.

Alive and Alone

At some point, Koepcke lost consciousness during the fall but miraculously survived the impact, waking up amid the plane crash wreckage in the Peruvian jungle to discover she was the only survivor out of 92 passengers.

She suffered injuries, including a broken collarbone and deep cuts in her shoulder, although her ordeal was just beginning.

Survival in the Amazon

Despite her injuries, Koepcke's survival instincts kicked in. She managed to free herself from her seat amid the plane crash wreckage and began navigating the treacherous terrain of the Amazon rainforest.

For 11 days, she battled against hunger, thirst and severe insect bites, surviving only on a packet of sweets she'd found in the plane's wreckage. Although rescue planes searched for survivors from the crash, the jungle's dense vegetation meant the rescuers couldn't spot Koepcke.

An Essential Education

Fortunately, she may have been better equipped than most people to survive a plane crash and the ensuing circumstances. Her parents had spent time studying the animals of the local rainforest, so she was familiar with some of the native plants and animals.

Following a river, Koepcke came across an empty open-air shelter with a palm leaf roof that local forest workers had built. Inside she found a can of petrol, which she poured over her shoulder to rid it of the maggots that had infested her wound. She'd seen her father do this for one of the family's pets in the past.

Then she fell asleep.

Rescue and Return to the Crash

Koepcke awoke the following morning when the Peruvian forest workers returned. They were just as startled to see her as she was them. Luckily, her parents had taught her enough Spanish that she was able to communicate who she was and what had happened to her.

The men helped her travel out of the remote wilderness by canoe to reach a village. Then rescue workers airlifted her to a Peru hospital, where she received medical attention for her physical injuries and was reunited with her father.

After she was well enough, Koepcke assisted search parties to help locate the plane crash site and recover the bodies of the victims, including her mother's.

The Legacy of Juliane Koepcke

Despite the trauma she endured as a result of the plane crash, Koepcke returned to her parents' native Germany, where she continued her education. In 1989, Koepcke married Erich Diller, a fellow scientist who shares her passion for the natural world.

Koepcke, now also sometimes known by her married name, Juliane Diller, became the director of Panguana, the research station that had been so important in her parents' lives. In 2011, Koepcke wrote a memoir called "When I Fell From the Sky," recounting her harrowing experience.

Curious Coincidence With Werner Herzog

The fact that Koepcke survived has fascinated people around the world, including authors and filmmakers. In 1998, she accompanied the German filmmaker Werner Herzog to the crash site.

Herzog was interested in telling Koepcke's story via a documentary ("Wings of Hope") not only because it was inspiring but also because he had narrowly missed a potentially similar fate.

While scouting locations for his 1972 film "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," Herzog had originally been scheduled to be aboard the fated LANSA flight until a last-minute change in plans.

Many other books and movies have focused on Koepcke's survival story, painting it as a picture of human resilience in the face of adversity and the will to survive against all odds.

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: How Juliane Koepcke Survived the Crash of LANSA Flight 508

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