The weather appears calm on December 24, 1971 in the Peruvian capital Lima. For 17-year-old Juliane Diller (née Koepcke), the flight she takes with her mother is routine. The German-Peruvian family has lived in the South American country since Juliane's parents emigrated during World War II. First to the capital Lima, then the two biologists moved into the middle of the rainforest. The research station "Panguana" became her home, and Juliane's.
The journey is familiar to them: first by plane from Lima to Pucallpa. Almost 500 kilometers away, cruising altitude 22,000 feet, i.e. almost 6,700 meters above sea level and 3,000 meters above the ground. Flight duration: just under an hour. Then continue by car into the rainforest to Panguana.
On this Christmas Eve 1971, 92 people are on board LANSA Flight 508. Juliane checks in with her maiden name. Koepcke: Seat 19F, second to last row, by the window. She celebrated her graduation with her mother in Lima. Now they wanted to go home again. But the plane never arrived in Pucallpa.
Shortly after takeoff, the Lockheed L-188 Electra aircraft was caught in a thunderstorm. The pilot decided against taking a detour and opting for the shortest route - straight through the storm. "It was really frightening, the clouds were almost floating around the plane, like living creatures, it was pitch black, constantly lit by lightning," Juliane Diller later recalled in a documentary by director Werner Herzog. Herzog was actually booked on the flight, but remained on the ground.
An “invisible force” shook the plane like “a toy,” Diller later wrote in a book. She remembers an "incredibly bright, blinding white light on the right wing." Then everything happens very quickly. The pilot loses control of the aircraft. The machine goes into a dive. The screaming of the passengers is only drowned out by the roar of the engines, as Diller later explains in a podcast.
The Lockheed bursts in the air. According to later investigations, lightning probably struck and one of the machine's engines caught fire. The entire right wing and parts of the left wing tore off, the aircraft's fuselage broke into several pieces and plunged from 3,000 meters into the dense Amazon rainforest below.
Juliane hangs strapped to her bench, upside down and sees the rainforest spinning beneath her. Then her memory blurs and she loses consciousness.
It was this bench that probably saved the girl's life: it slowed her fall like a parachute, and the updrafts caused by the storm probably did the rest. Ultimately, it was probably the dense canopy of the rainforest that intercepted them and thus cushioned their otherwise fatal impact.
Juliane no longer notices any of this. It wasn't until the next morning, around 20 hours after the crash, that she came to in the rainforest - alone. She is the only survivor of Flight 508. All other 85 passengers and six crew members died in the accident. But she doesn't know that yet when she wakes up in the rainforest. Although she is seriously injured, she survived the fall from almost 3,000 meters relatively well. She has cuts on her arm and leg, a concussion and a sprained spine. He also suffered a torn cruciate ligament and a fractured collarbone. She doesn't let herself feel the shock that she suffered. Her wounds barely bleed, and she doesn't even notice the torn cruciate ligament at first.
She sets out to find survivors, especially her mother, from whom she was separated when the plane broke up in mid-air. She searches the dense forest for hours, but to no avail. The debris is scattered over a radius of more than 15 kilometers.
A fight for survival begins again for Juliane. But her upbringing saves her in this desperate situation. From an early age she accompanied her parents on trips to the Peruvian rainforest. She knows the dangers of the landscape. And she remembers her father's advice to find a waterway and follow it. This is where you have the greatest chance of meeting people.
In the first few days, Juliane only eats candy that she finds at the plane crash site. Afterwards she is hungry. During the rainy season, no fruit grows on the trees in the forest. But she makes it through – for ten days. It follows the call of the "hoatzins", a bird native to rivers, and only consumes water from leaves or streams until it reaches the Rio Pachitea river. She lets herself drift downstream until she spots a small motorboat and a shelter on the bank. She sleeps underneath.
The next day she is discovered by forest workers. They treat their wounds and organize transport by boat and sports plane to Pucallpa. There Juliane meets her father again.
Their discovery sets in motion one of Peru's largest search operations. Planes from the Peruvian Air Force, airlines and private individuals are being used to search for survivors. But in vain. Almost a week later, the Air Force announced that it had found the bodies of all 91 missing people. To date, it is the fourth worst aviation accident in Peru's history.
According to investigations, in addition to Juliane, 13 other people survived the fall from the plane. But only the 17-year-old was able to save herself from the rainforest.
But the crash didn't affect her love of nature. Like her parents, she also became a biologist. Worked, among other things, as head of the library and deputy director of the Munich State Zoological Collection.
In 2019, she was awarded the Grand Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Peru and an honorary professorship from the University of Lima for her commitment to the Peruvian rainforest. In 2021, she was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon. In addition to her scientific writings, she processed her crash in a book. And will probably remain forever: “The Girl Who Fell from the Sky”.
Juliane Diller celebrates her 69th birthday on October 10th.
Sources: Spektrum, Der Spiegel, Durchfechter Podcast, German Foundation Center