They fell from the sky
– and survived
to tell the tale
Last week’s column discussed the amazing ability that cats possess to survive long falls relatively unscathed. Humans, however, don’t fare so well when they fall. In fact, falls are the second leading cause of accidental deaths worldwide.
Statistics vary slightly, depending on the source, but falls of 48 feet (four stories) have a 50% mortality rate. Falls of 84 feet (seven stories) or greater are almost uniformly lethal.
In earlier centuries, falls considered to be from great heights were necessarily restricted to those from cliffs, castles, minarets, cathedrals and such.
Defenestration, discussed in last week’s column, became a popular way for rebellious mobs in 17th Century Eastern Europe to eliminate corrupt officials – throw them out a window. It seems a straightforward enough way of dealing with politicians, albeit a bit brutal – for the onlookers, I mean.
More recently, defenestration is a technique used by despotic rulers to alleviate opposition, a troubling trend, to be sure.
The introduction of the hot air balloon in 1783 created a new and novel way to die. From 2002 to 2012, sixteen people died from hot air balloon accidents in the U.S.
The sport of parachuting, where one jumps out of an airplane for fun, has a relatively low fatality rate, particularly in recent years. Currently, the fatality rate is 0.39 per 100,000 jumps. The death rate from automobile accidents in the U.S. is 11.0 deaths per 100,000 people. From motorcycles, it is 72 deaths per 100,000 operators.
Attempts have been made to catalog survivors of falls from airplanes not involving a parachute. As you might guess, the list is short and probably incomplete.
Membership in the club for those falling thousands of feet and surviving is exceedingly small. Wikipedia only lists a dozen or so cases altogether.
The scope of this article addresses those who unintentionally fell from an airplane and survived. We have already established that humans do not have to fall from great heights to die. But these cases involve falls greater than 5,000 feet.
The following are extraordinary survival stories against overwhelming odds.
Vesna Vulovic, Serbian Flight Attendant, fell 33,330 feet.
The Guinness World Record title for falling from the greatest height and surviving goes to a Serbian flight attendant. Twenty-two-year-old Vesna Vulovic was working her shift on JAT Flight 367 from Stockholm to Belgrade on January 26, 1972, when a briefcase bomb on board exploded, shattering the plane.
Vulovic was the only one among 28 passengers and crew to survive. She was primarily spared because she became wedged between a coffee cart and a portion of the fuselage.
She passed out when the cabin depressurized, was in a coma for several days after the crash, and was left with no memory of the events. Her position in the wreckage reduced the impact on her body. Additionally, the section of fuselage she was trapped in hit trees and a snow-covered slope, which further reduced the impact.
Following her rescue from the wreckage, she was so badly injured she was not expected to live. She sustained a fractured skull, fractured pelvis, broken ribs, three broken vertebrae, and broke both legs.
Although temporarily paralyzed, Vulovic eventually got back on her feet and asked for her job back. She was adamant that she did not fear flying after the crash. Possibly so, because she had lost all memory of the incident.
She was denied her former airline attendant job by the airline because she might draw too much attention from both passengers and crew. Instead, she got a desk job working on freight contracts.
Vesna Vulovic died in Belgrade, Serbia, on December 23, 2016, at the age of 66. The injuries she sustained in the air crash left her unable to have children. Despite all the publicity and fame she garnered during her life, Vesna died alone and poor in her crumbling Belgrade apartment, a victim of survivor guilt and possibly depression.
As a final but uplifting footnote to her less than cheery life, Vesna was a huge fan of the Beatles, like many young women in the late 60s. The highlight of her life was when she was personally commemorated by Paul McCartney at a gala event in London.
Alan Eugene Magee, American Airman in World War II, fell 22,000 feet.
Alan’s case is interesting because it points out things that can slow your fall and reduce the impact of sudden deceleration.
Vesna Vulovic was protected by the material surrounding her body. The fuselage absorbed much of the force of ground impact. Also, falling through the trees and onto the snow-covered slope of the mountain softened her fall even more.
Twenty-four-year-old Alan Magee was a ball turret gunner on one of the famous Flying Fortresses, the B 17 Bomber. On January 3, 1943, his aircraft was shot down over German occupied France during a bombing run.
Exiting the ball turret to get his parachute, he found it damaged beyond use. The plane lost a section of the right wing from flak and entered a “death spiral.” Alan passed out in the low oxygen atmosphere of high altitude and was thrown clear of his airplane.
Unconscious and falling, he would attain terminal velocity quite quickly, falling at 32 feet per second. Alan likely hit the glass roof of a train station at approximately 120 miles per hour.
He broke through the glass and landed on the station’s floor, where the German Army soon recovered him. Despite his many injuries, including broken bones, eye and kidney damage, and a nearly-severed arm, he probably survived because of the energy absorbed by the breaking glass.
After hospital treatment for all injuries, including 28 shrapnel wounds, he spent the next 16 months in Germany as a prisoner of war. After Magee was liberated in 1945, he received the Purple Heart and Air Medal.
Alan Eugene Magee died on December 20, 2003, at age 84.
Juliane Koepcke, daughter of famous biologists, fell 9,843 feet.
I saved what I consider the most fascinating story for last. I did so because the victim played a significant role in her ultimate survival and subsequent rescue, unlike the others.
Juliane Koepcke, 17, had an unconventional life. Certain aspects of her upbringing may have been instrumental in surviving the aftermath of the plane crash. Both of her parents were world-renowned biologists involved in field research. And, as we will see, they taught her well.
Both Juliane and her mother, Maria Koepcke, boarded LANSA Flight 508 despite her father’s pleas not to do so. Hans Wilhelm Koepcke had serious concerns about the safety record of the airline.
It was Christmas Eve of 1971, and all flights were fully booked except for LANSA 508, so Maria and Juliane took it, wishing to be home for Christmas.
The plane carrying 92 passengers and crew hit severe thunderstorms and was struck by lightning over the Peruvian rainforest. The plane fell apart, spilling its cargo and passengers into the jungle some two miles below.
Juliane was still strapped to her seat as she was falling. In her autobiography, “When I Fell from the Sky,” she discusses known factors that may have saved her life.
Koepcke speculates that her position at the end of the row of three seats could have acted much like a winged maple seed. You have probably seen a maple seed whirl to the ground considerably slower than, say, an acorn. She remembers, “The forest coming at me in circles,” suggesting that she was spinning.
Additionally, there were strong updrafts associated with the storm that downed the plane. Updrafts could have provided lift to her maple seed analog, thereby slowing her descent.
And then you have the forest canopy itself, which is covered with a thick web of exceptionally strong vines called lianas. There is a good chance that she and her attached seat could have been slowed down just before hitting the jungle floor.
Considering that Koepcke fell nearly 10,000 feet before colliding with terra firma, she sustained relatively minor injuries. She had a broken collarbone, an eye injury, a concussion, and a deep gash in her right arm.
Juliane Koepcke was no stranger to the jungle.
Her parents had set up a research station deep in the Amazon rainforest when she was a child. Her parents knew their young daughter needed to understand the rules and proper behavior for living in a jungle.
Researchers visiting the station referred to Juliane as a “jungle child.” She was capable of hacking her way through the jungle with a machete and not getting lost. She learned to mark trees so she could find her way back when venturing off the main trails.
She credits her parents for teaching her that if she was ever to become lost in the rainforest to exercise “calm and methodical thinking.” This approach would allow Juliane to survive an 11-day walk through a dangerous jungle.
She knew that she could obtain water when no streams or springs were nearby by licking the dew off leaves.
Koepcke had lost one of her shoes and glasses in the air crash. There was little she could do about her poor eyesight, but she reasoned that she should keep the shoe on, however awkward. She used that foot to lead into areas with poisonous snakes and insects.
Juliane came upon a small spring one day early in her odyssey. She knew that she had found something to lead her back to civilization. By virtue of her calm demeanor and exceptional reasoning, this young woman followed rivulet to stream and stream to river. And, rivers lead to people.
After 11 days of struggling through stream bottoms and bushwhacking through the dense and dangerous jungle, 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke arrived at a missionary camp. The deep wound in her arm was infested with maggots, which she doused with some gasoline she found. The disgusting larvae quickly abandoned her gaping wound.
Now safe, she just waited until the missionaries returned. This brave and intelligent young woman didn’t wait in the jungle to be saved. She made her way out on her own terms, skills and strength.
After the plane crash and her self-rescue, she received a doctorate in zoology at the University of Munich. She then returned to her parent’s research station in Peru and spent many years studying bats.
Juliane Koepcke now resides in Munich, Germany, where she is the librarian for the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology.
Interestingly, the famous documentarian, Werner Herzog, made a film in 1998 about Koepcke’s story called “Wings of Hope.” In 1971 when her plane crashed, Herzog was scouting locations for another documentary. He had reservations on the same LANSA Flight 508 as Koepcke, but he was delayed and did not make the flight.
Herzog also made a documentary in Green Bank, West Virginia, in 2016 called Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.
Until next week,