“The dense jungle that broke her fall was almost her undoing”
We describe this event in detail because it is not only remarkable but uplifting, with many valuable lessons regarding the will to survive and human fortitude.
Lansa Flight 508, December 24, 1971
The Lockheed L-188 Electra, the only large turboprop airliner made in the US, had stubby wings and four powerful engines with huge propellers whose prop wash mostly passed over flaps that gave considerable extra wing area when deployed. It was exceptionally good for taking off from short high-altitude runways. In concept it was an excellent aircraft, and it served later as the basic airframe for the Lockheed P3 Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft, of which 650 were produced.
However, a phenomenon called “whirl mode flutter,” which was not understood at the time, produced vibrations in the outer engine nacelles that when transmitted to the wings at frequencies coinciding with the harmonics of the outer wing panels would cause the wings to go up and down violently enough to break off.
It is alleged the LANSA Lockheed L-188A Electra that took off at midday on Christmas Eve, 1971, from Lima, on Peru’s coast, was an early production model and an amalgam of several aircraft. It was to make the short flight inland over the Andes and then the Peruvian rain forest to its first stop, Pucallpa, before going on to Iquitos, even farther inland. There were ninety-two people on board—eighty-six passengers and six crew. Flying at an altitude of twenty-one thousand feet in good weather, the pilots were musing about how concerned they were about getting back to Lima in time to celebrate Christmas with their families, especially as the flight was already seven hours late.
For twenty-five minutes everything was fine, but then it became increasingly cloudy, and a storm front could be seen ahead even by the passengers. No doubt because they were determined to avoid further delay, the pilots flew straight into it. The clouds became almost black, and passed by the windows, as the passenger who survived said, “like menacing living creatures.”
There was extreme turbulence, accompanied by lightning. It got worse, with Christmas presents falling from the overhead bins. Finally, a lightning bolt struck the right engine, and fuel in the wing caught fire. The aircraft dived vertically, with the pilots struggling for control, at which point the rigid wing broke off.
With passengers screaming, the fuselage fell almost vertically, with objects inside tumbling forward, and then broke apart.
Aircraft were unable to locate the wreckage, which was obscured by the canopy of tall trees. Also, the torrential rain meant there were no plumes of smoke. The authorities were inundated with erroneous reports of locations of the crash, perhaps in part because the storm had created sounds and flashes suggestive of a crash. There were so many that the police commander said anyone reporting further sites would be arrested, which obviously put a damper on the flow of information. One of the reports had been correct but was ignored.
There were some survivors, but they died before rescuers reached them more than ten days later, guided to the spot, unbelievably, by a passenger thrown from the aircraft who had miraculously survived the two-mile (three-kilometer) free fall.
Miraculous Free Fall
That person was seventeen-year-old Juliane Koepcke, a half-Peruvian, half-German high school senior studying in Lima, who had been sitting by a window at the rear with her mother next to her and a heavily built man in the aisle seat.
According to Juliane, when the fuselage broke apart everything went quiet, and she found herself alone, with only the sound of wind in her ears. Her mother and the man in the aisle seat gone, she was falling to earth alone, strapped in at the end of her row of seats. Losing and regaining consciousness, she saw the forest below moving in circles like “green cauliflower, like broccoli” as she fell toward it, pinned painfully in place by her seat belt biting into her stomach.
She only really came to at nine o’clock the following morning, meaning she had remained comatose and in shock the whole afternoon and night. There was no sign of anyone else. No debris.
She had a broken collar bone, a gash in her calf, a deep puncture wound, abrasions of varying severity, concussion, and an eye injury brought about by the change in air pressure.
Having lost her glasses, she found it difficult to see distant objects anyway. She had also lost a shoe and would have to put the foot with the remaining shoe forward every time there was something in the water potentially dangerous. She was wearing a short skirt that did little to protect her from the cold at night and from mosquito and insect bites, and which a Peruvian newspaper later drew raised alluringly in a comic strip depicting her ordeal.
She was totally alone, injured, in a dense jungle, and danger lurked everywhere. However, Juliane had several things in her favor:
1. Her parents had inculcated the notion that solutions could always be found, provided one thought calmly and logically;
2. From an early age, she had spent several periods at her father’s research station in the rain forest, even going on trips with her parents deep into it with no handholding. She had learnt about piranhas (only dangerous in still water), stingrays, snakes, caimans, poisonous stonefish, and other dangers, including certain plants.
3. Most importantly, her father had taught her that if lost, she should look for a stream and follow that, as it would lead her to a river and eventually people.
She shouted to no avail and wandered around in the hope of finding her mother, until finally finding a stream and following it to a creek. She only had boiled sweets to eat, which soon ran out.
Thinking back later, she believed the muddy matter she took in when drinking from the stream and river must have provided some sustenance, as well as hepatitis.
On the fourth day, she heard the flapping of large wings that could be only those of vultures that might be preying on the dead from the aircraft. Around the next bend she saw a row of seats. The three occupants, two men and a woman, were upside down with their feet sticking up grotesquely in the air, their heads buried deep in the ground. She looked around but could not find any sign of people.
On the fifth or sixth day, she heard the call of hoatzin (stink birds), and, having been told by her ornithologist mother that they are usually associated with open expanses of water, she felt more confident. However, just ahead, where the creek should feed into the river, the way was blocked by impenetrable vegetation. With tremendous effort she forced her way through the thickets to the side in the direction of the sound of the birds and finally reached the river. Weak and hungry, she half swam, half floated down the moving water in the middle, encountering caimans and also logs that could have broken her bones.
As evening approached on the tenth day, she flopped down on a gravel bank and dozed off. When she opened her eyes, she thought she must be dreaming, for a boat was moored nearby. She swam over to it. It was real; moreover, a path with foot marks led from it to a primitive shelter, which in her weakened state took her hours to crawl to. In it was the outboard motor for the boat and a can of gasoline, some of which she poured onto her maggot-infested wounds, another trick her father had taught her. She later told London’s Daily Mail that thirty-five worms came out of her arms alone.