It’s 3:15 p.m. on January 26, 1972, and JAT Flight 367 has just taken off from Copenhagen Airport in Denmark. The plane, flying in the colors of the Yugoslav national airline JAT, is on a routine flight from the Danish capital to Belgrade in what was then called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. On board is 22-year-old flight attendant Vesna Vulovic – who’s only been in the role for a scant eight months. But in about 45 minutes, her life will change forever.
Before Vulovic found her passion for flying, though, she was more interested in rock’n’roll. Born in the Yugoslavian capital Belgrade in 1950 to a businessman father and physical trainer mother, she later traveled to the U.K. to improve her English – and catch sight of The Beatles. And this overseas stint came after a year spent at college studying modern languages.
But despite the allure of the British boyband – who had burst on to the international scene in the early 1960s – the Belgrade native didn’t remain in the country for long. After teaming up with a friend in London for a while, Vulovic then decided to move on to Stockholm in Sweden.
And the Belgrade native recalled in a 2002 interview with the website Green Light, “When I told my parents I was living in the Swedish capital, they thought of the drugs and the sex and told me to come home at once.” Yet seemingly this move home proved fortuitous, as it was back in Belgrade that she met a friend who was a flight attendant.
Vulovic remembered admiring her friend’s uniform – and her job. “She looked so nice and had just been to London for the day. I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I be an air hostess? I could go to London once a month,’” she told Green Light. And so she duly signed up with Yugoslavia’s national carrier JAT in 1971.
It was eight months after she joined the airline that Vulovic found herself on a stopover in Copenhagen. JAT Flight 367 was a flight from Stockholm to Belgrade via the Danish capital and Zagreb in modern-day Croatia. In fact, Vulovic was only in Copenhagen waiting to join Flight 367 because of a mix-up.
“I should not have been there at all, as it was a different Vesna that should have been rostered with that crew. A little mistake, however, meant that I had my first trip to Denmark,” Vulovic told Green Light. “I was very happy. I had always dreamed of staying in a Sheraton Hotel, and I had a room there for one night. We arrived on 25 January.”
Yes, Flight 367 arrived at Copenhagen Airport at 2:30 p.m. on January 16, 1972, without a hitch. Vulovic and her four colleagues then boarded the aircraft – a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 – replacing the current crew. And as only 23 passengers were flying on to Yugoslavia that day, less than 30 people were onboard the craft. With a light load, then, the plane subsequently took to the sky at 3:15 p.m.
But just 46 minutes later, at 4:01 p.m., disaster struck. The plane was now over Czechoslovakian airspace and cruising at a height of 33,000 feet when there was a catastrophic explosion in the baggage hold. And the force of the explosion tore the plane into three pieces – with the wreckage plummeting to earth.
The stricken DC-9 smashed into the ground near the Czech village of Srbská Kamenice. Tragically, the captain and 26 of the crew and passengers all died instantly. But the last person onboard the craft had miraculously survived the terrible crash. Yes, a villager called Bruno Honke heard screams coming from the devastated plane and happened upon the shattered body of Vulovic.
Incredibly, the flight attendant was still alive – although she was covered in blood. Fortunately for her, Honke had served as a medic in World War II, and he was able to keep her breathing until first responders arrived on the scene. And it’s likely he had his work cut out, too, as the catalogue of Vulovic’s injuries makes for grim reading.
The damage to her body included a fractured skull, three vertebrae fractures, two broken legs, a number of broken ribs and a fractured pelvis – as well as temporary paralysis. Perhaps fortuitously, Vulovic spent some time in a coma; when she awoke, she had no memory of the accident or of the weeks that followed it.
In fact, Vulovic later claimed that she remembered nothing of the terrible drama for quite some time. “I have amnesia from one hour before the accident until one month afterwards,” she recalled. “The first thing I can remember is seeing my parents in the hospital.” In fact, the first she learned of the accident was two weeks after it happened, when doctors showed her a newspaper. At the sight of the headline, she fainted. Subsequently, Vulovic couldn’t even recall the fainting incident, and her parents had to tell her what had happened.
But how on earth had Vulovic survived an explosion at 33,000 feet and the resulting fall to earth? Well, investigators were later to credit her near-miraculous survival to the fact that she’d been pinned inside a section of the aircraft by a food trolley. Conversely, other passengers and crew had been sucked out of the depressurized plane and plunged to their deaths.
And the section of fuselage where Vulovic was trapped had come to rest on a densely forested and snowy mountain slope. Luckily, the snow and the trees had lessened the force of the crash landing. But what exactly caused the mid-air explosion that had destroyed Flight 367?
Well, from 1962 onwards Croatian nationalist terrorists – often called the Ustashe – had been waging a campaign against the central government of Yugoslavia. Extremists carried out 128 terror attacks in Yugoslavia over a 20-year period. And the day after Flight 367 was destroyed, a man describing himself as a Croatian nationalist phoned a Swedish newspaper and claimed that his group had planted a bomb on the flight.
Yet although no one was ever arrested for the bombing, the mystery man’s explanation was accepted by the Czechoslovak Civil Aviation Authority – but not by everyone. In 2009, for instance, two Czech journalists claimed that Flight 267 had been brought down accidentally by a Czechoslovak Air Force plane. However, they had only circumstantial evidence to back up their assertion. In any case, Guinness World Records continues to list Vulovic as the survivor of the longest descent without a parachute.
Happily, after 16 months of convalescence, Vulovic recovered from her horrific injuries – although she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. And the Belgrade native actually said she’d be happy to work as a flight attendant again, but JAT decided to reassign her to ground duties.
Not surprisingly, Vulovic’s extraordinary survival story made her something of a celebrity. Serbian folk singer Miroslav Ilić released a song entitled “Vesna the Stewardess,” and Yugoslav leader President Tito personally presented her with an award. But personal happiness was to prove elusive. The former flight attendant married in 1977 but divorced in the 1990s and, after enduring an ectopic pregnancy, never had children.
And Vulovic’s career with JAT came to a controversial end, too, as she was fired in the 1990s after getting involved in protests against the Serbian government. She also suffered from the guilt that can afflict survivors of fatal accidents. In 2012 she told The Independent, “Whenever I think of the accident, I have a prevailing, grave feeling of guilt for surviving it, and I cry … Then I think maybe I should not have survived at all.” After some years of ill health, Vulovic passed away in December 2016.
Remarkably, though, Vulovic isn’t the only person to have plummeted from a plane and miraculously survived. When the airliner in which teenager Juliane Koepcke was traveling was struck by lightning over the Amazon jungle in 1971, it plunged her into a nightmare – but somehow she made it out alive. This is her incredible story.
Thousands of feet above the thick canopy of the Amazon jungle, a passenger plane hit trouble in stormy skies. Then, after a bolt of lightning struck the wing, the craft’s fuselage disintegrated – sending 17-year-old Koepcke hurtling down towards the ground below. She was still strapped into her seat as she went into a tailspin. The teenager saw the Amazon rushing up to greet her – before, perhaps gratefully, she lost all consciousness.
Koepcke was born on October 10, 1954, in Lima – the capital city of Peru. Her German parents, Maria and Hans-Wilhelm, were both zoologists employed by the Javier Prado Museum of Natural History. And as a result, Koepcke developed a passion for nature from a young age. Then, when she was just 14 years old, the family relocated into the depths of the Amazon rainforest.
There, Maria and Hans-Wilhelm established a research station known as Panguana, where Koepcke spent her days being homeschooled and exploring her jungle home. Then, in March 1970, the young woman was sent back to Lima to complete her high school education. And by December of 1971 she was ready to graduate.
According to Koepcke, her mom – who had also been in Lima for work – was keen to fly back to Panguana in plenty of time for Christmas. However, the teenager was desperate to attend her school’s graduation ball on December 22, and her mother finally relented. And two days after Koepcke posed for photographs in her formal gown, she and her mom finally boarded a plane home.
At around 11:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve, the pair settled into their seats on Lansa Flight 508 – bound for Pucallpa in eastern Peru. But just 15 minutes before the plane was meant to touch down, it flew into a heavy storm. And for ten minutes, the cabin was a scene of panic, as turbulence sent drinks and baggage flying across the aisles.
As their fellow passengers began to cry and scream, Koepcke and her mom held hands. But then, the teenager spotted a bright light outside the plane. A bolt of lightning had severed the craft’s right wing, sending it spiralling in a nose dive towards the ground. And at this point, Koepcke reportedly heard her mother say, “It’s all over.”
The next thing Koepcke knew, she was falling through mid-air – still belted into her airplane seat. But as the ground grew closer and closer, she blacked out. For two miles, the 17-year-old tumbled helplessly through the air before she crashed her way through the rainforest canopy and landed on the jungle floor.
Miraculously, Koepcke didn’t just survive her ordeal – apart from some cuts and a damaged collarbone, she escaped unharmed. But the teenager was also alone in the jungle, dressed only in a minidress and with nothing in the way of equipment or food. And even though she cried out for help, she heard only silence in return.
At the site of the crash, Koepcke managed to get her hands on some boiled sweets – the only type of nourishment that she could find. And equipped with such meager supplies, the teenager knew that she had to leave the spot where she had landed and find help. Luckily, her time living in the rainforest had prepared her for what was to come.
Apparently, Koepcke’s father had told his daughter that the jungle’s streams eventually led to larger stretches of water – and civilization. So, the teenager located a creek and began to follow it through the rainforest. However, it was a perilous journey, fraught with dangers such as big cats and venomous snakes.
Impressively, Koepcke kept her head, using what she knew about the rainforest to minimize the risks she faced during her journey. For instance, the teenager was aware that deadly piranhas were more likely to attack in the shallows – so she traveled in deeper water instead. Moreover, she knew that the streams were probably safe to drink from.
At one point, Koepcke heard the sound of a king vulture landing close by. The call terrified her, as she knew that it meant dead bodies were in the area. Sure enough, she soon stumbled upon the remains of three passengers still in their seats, their heads embedded in the jungle floor. For a moment, she feared that one could be her mother before she spotted the painted nails. The teen knew that her mom didn’t use nail varnish.
On the fourth day, Koepcke’s stash of sweets ran out. However, she had little choice but to continue, inching her way through the rainforest with her one remaining shoe. During the lighter hours, the 17-year-old was constantly plagued by bugs, while nighttime saw the temperatures drop and the onset of freezing rain.
Nevertheless, Koepcke persevered. And when she heard the cry of a bird that she recognized from her time at Panguana – ironically just 30 miles away – she knew it meant that a bigger water source was nearby. Following the sound through the jungle, Koepcke eventually found herself at a river.
After ten days, Koepcke finally stumbled upon a beacon of hope. “I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a really large boat,” she told the BBC in 2012. “When I went to touch it and realized it was real, it was like an adrenaline shot.” Then, she saw a path leading off into the rainforest. Following it, the teenager came to a hut housing some gas and a motor.
By this point, a wound on Koepcke’s arm had become infected, with maggots squirming around inside. Copying a treatment that she had seen her father give to their family dog, she applied gas to the cut. Eventually, the teen was able to remove some of the creatures before deciding to get some sleep inside the shack.
Eventually, Koepcke heard the sound of voices outside the hut. Yes, although it did not happen very often, a group of loggers had decided to visit their camp. And with that stroke of luck, her ordeal was over. After feeding the teenager and tending her wounds, they returned her to civilization – where she was reunited with her desperate father.
For days after the crash, Hans-Wilhelm continued to search for any sign of his missing wife. Eventually, Maria’s body was discovered in the jungle. Heartbreakingly, she too had survived the crash – although an injury had prevented her from seeking help. According to Koepcke, her father was never the same after the tragedy. “His life was finished,” she told The Telegraph in 2012.
Meanwhile, Koepcke found herself at the center of a media storm. Overwhelmed by the situation, her father sent her to Germany to live with her aunt and grandmother. But as time went on, the ghosts of her past continued to haunt her. In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that the crash survivor achieved some kind of closure. Indeed, that year, movie director Werner Herzog – who had tried to get a seat on the plane himself – took her back to the Amazon for the first time. And it was then that they filmed his documentary Wings of Hope.
Today, Koepcke has taken over from her parents at Panguana, having overseen its conversion into a nature reserve. And in 2011, she published a book about her experiences, entitled When I Fell from the Sky. “Sometimes I feel unlucky that I have to carry this heavy weight, because it is a heavy weight for the psyche,” she explained. “But I am healthy and I can do work that I love, and this is only possible because I survived – so I am lucky too.”