The Incredible Survival Story Of Juliane Koepcke And LANSA Flight 508

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December 24th, 1971 saw the crash that effectively brought LANSA’s time as an operational airline to an end. Caused by a lightning strike, the Lockheed L-188 Electra partially broke up while flying at more than 20,000 feet, and crashed into the Amazon rainforest below. Its sole survivor has a rather remarkable recovery story.

The flight and aircraft involved

Peruvian carrier Lineas Aéreas Nacionales Sociedad Anonima (LANSA) had a rather checkered history. In its later years, a series of accidents saw both its reputation and fleet shrink significantly. By the time December 1971 rolled around, it just had one aircraft left.

This was a Lockheed L-188A ‘Electra’ turboprop, which bore the registration OB-R-941. According to data from ATDB.aero, it was just over 12 years old at the time, having entered service with Braniff in August 1959. It later joined LANSA in May 1970. Its registration at the US carrier had been different, namely N9704C.

On December 24th, 1971, it was rostered to operate LANSA flight 508, which originated at Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport (LIM). Its destination was Iquitos International Airport (IQT), in the northeast of the country, via a stopover at Pucallpa’s Captain Rolden International Airport (PCL). The Aviation Safety Network notes that it had 92 people onboard, comprised of 86 passengers and six crew.

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Disaster in the jungle

Disaster struck on the first leg of the flight when it encountered an area of thunderstorms and strong turbulence around 40 minutes into the trip. At this point, it was cruising at an altitude of around 21,000 feet, or 6,400 meters, above sea level. The crew opted to continue their flight through these conditions, reportedly due to being under pressure to meet the busy Christmas schedule.

However, this decision proved fatal, as the aircraft was struck by lightning with disastrous consequences. The bolt caused the aircraft’s right wing to catch fire, and it eventually separated from the rest of the plane. As it plummeted towards the Amazon rainforest below, structural failure caused further breakup of the aircraft.

The burning plane ultimately crashed in the mountains, with the violent impact sadly killing all but one of its occupants. Interestingly, it later emerged that as many as 14 victims initially survived, but died before they could be rescued. 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke was the crash’s sole survivor, but her ordeal wasn’t over yet.

Koepcke’s unlikely survival story has been told in several books and films. Photo: Getty Images

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Alone in the Amazon

So how exactly did Koepcke end up as the sole survivor of a fall from such a great height? Several factors have been considered, such as the fact that she remained strapped to her seat, with the adjacent seats slowing her fall as they remained attached. Additionally, windy updrafts and the rainforest’s dense foliage are also thought to have slowed her fall and somewhat cushioned the impact.

Koepcke still sustained serious injuries, but managed to survive alone in the jungle for over a week. After following a stream to an encampment, local workers eventually found her and were able to administer first aid before returning her to civilization.

She became a mammalogist, and is now known by her married name, Juliane Diller. Guinness World Records lists LANSA flight 508 as the deadliest plane crash caused by an inflight lightning strike. The airline ceased operations shortly afterward.

What do you make of Koepcke’s survival story? Do you know of any similar instances? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

Sources: Aviation Safety Network, Guinness World Records

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Jake Hardiman
(1380 Articles Published)

Journalist – A graduate in German, Jake has a passion for aviation history, and enjoys sampling new carriers and aircraft even if doing so demands an unorthodox itinerary. A keen amateur photographer, he also recently reached the milestone of flying his 100th sector as a passenger. Based in Norwich, UK.

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