Juliane Koepcke: The Sole Survivor of the LANSA Flight 508

Teenage girl Juliane Koepcke wandering into the Peruvian jungle
Teenage girl Juliane Koepcke wandering into the Peruvian jungle
Teenage girl Juliane Koepcke wandering into the Peruvian jungle

During this uncertain time, stories of human survival—especially in times of sheer hopelessness—can provide an uplifting swell throughout long periods of tedium and fear. This one, in particular, redefines the term: perseverance.

Juliane Koepcke was 17 years old when it happened. A dedicated student, she had an innate passion for learning. Her parents, Maria and Hans-Wilhelm, were Germans studying animal sciences in the Peruvian rainforest—Maria, an ornithologist, known for her work with Neotropical bird species; and Hans-Wilhelm, a celebrated zoologist. The couple had moved to the heart of the jungle from the capital city of Lima (where their daughter was born), establishing the Panguana Ecological Research Station—an extension of their meticulous work. Juliane, however, was still in high school and chose to continue her studies back home until graduation. That was until everything changed.

A young Juliane Koepcke smiles at the camera surrounded by her mother, Maria Koepcke, and her father, Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke
A young Juliane Koepcke smiles at the camera surrounded by her mother, Maria Koepcke, and her father, Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke. Photo credit: Werner Herzog’s “Wings of Hope” documentary/Youtube

On December 24, 1971, Juliane and her mother boarded a flight in Lima bound for Pucallpa, the city airport closest to Panguana, to visit her father for Christmas. By her own accounts, the first half of the LANSA Flight 508 was smooth and uneventful. And then they flew into a thunderstorm. A strike of lightning hit the wing of the Lockheed L-188A Electra aircraft, causing it to break apart.

Juliane, still strapped into her seat, fell 10,000 feet (almost 2 miles) into a thick forest of tropical wilderness—and survived. And she was the only one.

But her journey towards survival did not end there. Blessed with superior knowledge of plants, insects, and wildlife, Juliane managed to find her way out of the Peruvian jungle after spending 11 days on her own. No food, a gash on her leg, and second-degree burns. Using the skills her parents taught her, she followed a brook (and sustained herself by drinking the relatively clear water) out of the brush, where she was eventually rescued.

Today, Juliane (now Juliane Diller) is an icon of survival. She continues to works as a mammologist just outside of Munich, Germany.