Survival Stories: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

When she was 17, Juliane Koepcke dropped 10,000 feet into the Amazon rain forest. She describes how she survived—alone.

Juliane KoepckeCourtesy Juliane Koepcke DillerJuliane Koepcke grew up in Lima, Peru, before moving, at 14, to the Peruvian rain forest, where her parents, Maria and Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, established the Panguana Ecological Research Station. After two years of accompanying them on research trips into the jungle, Juliane returned to Lima to complete high school.

On December 24, 1971, Juliane, 17, and her mother boarded a flight in Lima bound for Pucallpa, the city with an airport closest to Panguana, to visit her father for Christmas. In her own words:

My days in Lima are wonderful. Despite my jungle experience, I am a schoolgirl. I spend my vacations in Panguana and my school days with classmates in Lima.

My mother prefers to fly to Pucallpa earlier, but a school dance and my high school graduation ceremony are on December 22 and 23, respectively. I beg my mother to let me attend.

“All right,” she said. “We’ll fly on the 24th.”

The airport is packed when we arrive the morning of Christmas Eve. Several flights had been canceled the day before, and hundreds of people now crowd the ticket counters. About 11 a.m., we gather for boarding. My mother and I sit in the second-to-last row on a three-seat bench. I’m by the window as always; my mother sits beside me; a heavyset man sits in the aisle seat. Mother doesn’t like flying. She’s an ornithologist and says it’s unnatural that a bird made of metal takes off into the air.

The first half of the hour-long flight from Lima to Pucallpa is uneventful. We’re served a sandwich and a drink for breakfast. Ten minutes later, as the flight attendants begin to clean up, we fly into a huge thunderstorm.

Suddenly, daylight turns to night and lightning flashes from all directions. People gasp as the plane shakes violently. Bags, wrapped gifts, and clothing fall from overhead lockers. Sandwich trays soar through the air, and half-finished drinks spill onto passengers’ heads. People scream and cry.

“Hopefully this goes all right,” my mother says nervously.

I see a blinding white light over the right wing. I don’t know whether it’s a flash of lightning or an explosion. I lose all sense of time. The airplane begins to nosedive. From my seat in the back, I can see down the aisle into the cockpit.

My ears, my head, my whole body are filled with the deep roar of the plane. Over everything, I hear my mother say calmly, “Now it’s all over.”

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2 thoughts on “Survival Stories: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

  1. I read about this woman’s ordeal as a child and was amazed at her strength. So happy to be able to read it again and share with my kids.

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