In 1971 Juliane Koepcke Fell 10,000 Feet To The Amazon And Lived

When 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke awoke on the floor of the Peruvian rainforest, she was still in her assigned plane seat but unfastened from her seat belt. That, and the plane itself was nowhere to be seen. She was totally alone, in the middle of nowhere.

In the middle of a life adventurous, Koepcke boarded a plane with her mother en route to see her father for Christmas.

That flight would change both of their lives forever, but Koepcke would walk out of the jungle as the sole survivor of Lansa flight 508. Her story puts the “no way” in unbelievable.

Wonderful Days

A young Juliane and her parents |

For 17-year-old Juliane, life was good. She split her time between school in Lima and time spent with her parents. They were zoologists, German expats, living in the jungles of Peru.

In school, she studied the pillars of learning, but in the jungle, she learned survival techniques. The latter would save her life, facilitating her to return to the former.

Later in life, Koepcke was able to follow in her parent’s footsteps, earning her Ph.D. in biology, only because she survived the jungle using what they’d taught her.

Holiday Travel

That December, she was in Lima, finishing the semester. She and her mother planned to fly to meet her father in Pucallpa before the holiday, but Koepcke was anxious to stay a few days later.

There were a school dance and high school graduation she wanted to attend December 22 and 23.

“I beg my mother to let me attend. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘We’ll fly on the 24th.’”

They arrived at the airport on time on the 24th to find a zoo. The airline had canceled flights from the day before. There were stranded passengers everywhere, but the Koepckes managed to get seats. Juliane sat between her mother, who took the window seat, and an overweight man on the aisle.

When the plane hit some rough turbulence, storm clouds swallowed the ambient sunlight filling the plane. The fuselage thrashed through the sky as flashes of light blasted the darkness.

Inside the plane, everything tossed about like they’d lost their bearings on gravity, then a huge flash of light blinded Koepcke.

“Now it’s all over,” is the last thing she heard her mother say.

December 24th, 1971

My free fall is quiet. I see nothing around me,” is how Koepcke describes it. “The seat belt squeezes my belly so tight that I can’t breathe. Before I feel fear, I lose consciousness.”

A lightning strike had crippled the plane. She remembers that for a moment the plane was in a nosedive but then she passed out. By the time Koepcke woke up (in the free fall), her mother and the plane were gone. So was the overweight man from the aisle seat.

“When I come to, I’m upside down, still falling, the Peruvian rainforest spinning slowly towards me. The densely packed treetops remind me of broccoli. I see everything as if through a fog before I pass out again.”

Koepcke fell two miles to the Earth. She would later learn from search parties that where they found her seat, the canopy above was thick with vines.

This combined with the spinning motion of the seat, and the structure of said seat is what likely saved her life. She had only a broken collarbone and a cut on her leg.

That was when her education kicked in. From her parents, she had learned what was safe to eat, but also what was not; anything she didn’t recognize. They also taught her how one can get lost in the jungle.

“I walk in small circles around my seat, aware of how quickly you can lose your orientation in the jungle. I memorize the location and markings of one tree to keep my bearings. I find no trace of the crash. No wreckage, no people. But I do discover a bag of sweets and eat one.”

Follow The Stream…

Koepcke in documentary later in life |

If you’ve ever watched Bear Grylls’ show, Man vs. Wild, you’re familiar with the expression: Follow the stream until you find the river, follow the river until you find civilization.

If you’re a fan of the show, it broke your heart when you learned that producers staged much of the show. Still, the advice stands.

This is exactly what Koepcke did. It took her some time to get up and move, likely from shock, but when she did she heard something important.

“I hear the dripping, tinkling, gurgle of water that I hadn’t noticed before,” she told Reader’s Digest. “Nearby I find a spring, feeding a tiny rivulet. This fills me with hope. Not only have I found water to drink, but I’m convinced that this little stream will lead the way to my rescue.”

…Until You Find Civilization

Koepcke never found civilization, but she did find a shelter. She’d been wandering along the stream until it became a river, swimming and drinking from the water, resting as she went. She was under constant attack from mosquitos and other bugs.

With each day she had descend ended further into weakness, sunburned and undernourished. The sweets she found were long gone and nothing in the forest she recognized as safe. She had no means to catch a fish.

“I spend the tenth day drifting in the water… In the evening, I find a gravel bank that looks like a good place to sleep… When I wake up, I see something that doesn’t belong here… A boat!”

Near the boat, a trail led up to a shelter, where Koepcke took shelter for the night. When she woke up she was too weak to leave, so she wrapped a tarp around her shoulders and hunkered in for another night.

“At twilight, I hear voices,” she said. “I’m imagining them, I think. But the voices got closer. “When three men come out of the forest and see me, they stop in shock. ‘I’m a girl who was in the LANSA crash.’”

Koepcke & Herzog stand next to what remains of 508 |

Years later she returned to the site of the crash, sifting through the wreckage still on the forest floor. A documentary, Wings of Hope, captures the story, as told by Werner Herzog.

As it turns out, the famous director barely missed taking the same flight, due to a last minute change of his itinerary.

In 1974, Giuseppe Maria Scotese, directed Miracles Do Happen, a movie about Koepcke’s story. It’s pretty rough to watch, dated, so it’s high time someone rebooted Koepcke’s story. The only problem is, audiences might not believe it.

Source: Reader’s Digest