The Juliane Koepcke Story: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Juliane Koepcke was born a German national in Lima, Peru, in 1954, the daughter of a world-renowned zoologist (Hans-Wilhelm) and an equally revered ornithologist (Maria). As a teenager, Juliane was enrolled at a Peruvian high school. Her parents were stationed several hundred miles away, manning a remote research outpost in the heart of the Amazon. Juliane herself was no stranger to the swelteringly harsh Amazonian environment and was well versed in the inner workings of its volatile ecosystem. It was this knowledge that would later save her life.

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On Christmas Eve 1971, only hours after her high school graduation ceremony, 17-year-old Juliane and her mother boarded a plane that was to cross the Peruvian rain forest. They were heading home to celebrate Christmas with her father. The plane flew into a volatile thunderstorm and was obliterated in seconds—killing all 92 passengers except for Juliane. After being thought dead for 11 days, she emerged from the jungle and was reunited with her father.

The details of this remarkable escape were revisited in Wings of Hope, a little-known documentary that was made for German television by Werner Herzog in 2000. Not enough people have seen this film or heard Juliane’s story, so Vice spoke with her and asked her to tell the story all over again.

Below is the transcript from the interview:

Vice: Can you describe the atmosphere in the airport when you arrived there to take that doomed flight? Did anything seem amiss?

Juliane Koepcke: It was completely normal. The flight was delayed, but they have delays in Peru all the time, so no one thought anything of it. I remember it was very crowded in the airport and all the people wanted to go home to spend Christmas with their families. We saw the machine outside, a turboprop Electra. It looked really neat. Of course you can’t tell when you’re not a technician, but to me it seemed perfect. Then we boarded the plane and for the first 30 minutes everything was fine.

Did you choose to sit by the window yourself?

Yes, because I used to love sitting next to the window and looking outside. My mother didn’t care so much. We sat in the very back. That was by chance, of course. We sat in the second-to-last row.

When did you notice for the first time that something wasn’t quite right?

Only once we flew into the thunderstorm. They served sandwiches about half an hour after takeoff, and we were supposed to land 20 minutes later. It’s a total flight time of 50 to 60 minutes to where we going, a place called Pucallpa.

How did the trouble begin?

The clouds became thicker. I used to love flying, so I didn’t really pay that much attention to the weather. Then my mother started getting nervous and said, “I don’t like this.” The clouds became darker and darker and the flight became more turbulent. Then we were in the midst of pitch-black clouds and a proper storm with thunder and lightning.

Were the other passengers as nervous as your mother?

My mother wasn’t exactly nervous. She was merely concerned, but you couldn’t really tell from the outside. The other passengers were still calm. They weren’t happy about it, but you couldn’t really feel that. It was pitch-black all around us and there was constant lightning. Then I saw a glistening light on the right wing and my mother said: “Now it’s over.” The motor was hit by lightning. This machine had turbines with propellers. After that, everything went super-fast. What really happened is something you can only try to reconstruct in your mind. We only found out later that turboprop Electra machines weren’t designed for this kind of heavy turbulence. Their wings are too stiff. The bolt that hit the plane probably caused it to break up in midair, because it definitely didn’t explode.

When your mother said, “Now it’s over,” did that comment mean anything to you at all?

No, I didn’t really have the chance to think about it. I registered it and then I had a blackout. There’s one thing I remember: I heard the incredibly loud motor and people screaming and then the plane fell extremely steeply. And then it was calm—incredibly calm compared with the noise before that. I could only hear the wind in my ears. I was still attached to my seat. My mother and the man sitting by the aisle had both been propelled out of their seats. I was free-falling, that’s what I registered for sure. I was in a tailspin. I saw the forest beneath me—like “green cauliflower, like broccoli,” is how I described it later on. Then I lost consciousness and regained it only way later, the next day.

What did you feel while all of this happened? Was it terror, or were you in shock?

I wasn’t scared; I didn’t have time for that. Even while I was falling I wasn’t afraid. I just realized that the seatbelt was putting pressure on my stomach and my head was upside down. But that’s about it—it was probably only fractions of a second. Or maybe I blocked it out. Either way, I don’t remember it.

OK, and then you woke up the next day on the jungle floor?

The next morning, actually. The crash was around 1:30 PM, and the next morning around nine I looked at my wristwatch. It was still intact and only stopped working later on. Then I realized I was on the ground and I knew right away what had happened. I had a serious concussion, so I couldn’t sit up. My eye was swollen. My glasses—which I’d had since I was 14 because I’m nearsighted—were gone. I was lying underneath my seat and I wasn’t strapped in anymore. I could see a bit of the forest but also a bit of the sky. I knew that I had survived a plane crash. The concussion and the shock only let me realize basic facts. I didn’t really think about myself. I was more concerned about where my mother was. That’s the first thing I remember. I had probably woken up and lost consciousness again a couple of times before that, due to the heavy concussion. I must have released myself from the seat because I was definitely strapped in when I fell. That’s what Werner Herzog reconstructed later on, too. We know I was attached to the seat, which must have turned and buffered the crash. Otherwise I wouldn’t have survived. I also know that I had crawled under the seat because it was raining. I used to dream about this. I dreamed that I was dirty and soaked and would only have to get up to take a shower. Then I have a tiny fragment of a memory, of pulling myself under that seat to protect myself from the rain. Then I thought, “I just have to get up,” and when I made up my mind to do that, I woke up.

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