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* The incredible fall of Juliane Koepcke

Photo Atlantic Airlines Lockheed L-188C Electra II registration G-FIZU leaving Glasgow Prestwick International Airport United Kingdom 8 May 2008 similar aircraft Juliane fell credit Andy Mitchell original license Creative Commons With permission from Andy Mitchell

In 1971 this teenager was thrown from an airplane at a height of more than 3 km. She fell with no more protection than a row of three seats to which she was attached, but amazingly she managed to survive. Although for many this has been a miracle, it is possible that actually the laws of Physics may have (once again) acted.

The four-engine Lockheed L-188 Electra II was flying over the Peruvian Amazon when it entered a dangerous storm. Lightning bolts, turbulence and the pilots' desperate maneuvers to try to stabilize the aircraft were too much for the structure, which ended giving up and breaking into several pieces. When the tail disintegrated, Juliane was sent out flying.

She remembers having felt the wind in her body. Then she saw the trees tops, like a green sea coming, and she fainted.

When she awoke, several hours later, only the three-seat row, where she had been seated with her seatbelt buckled-up, was with her. There was nothing else, and she could not see where the plane came to rest. With great effort she got up. She had a broken collarbone, a cut in her arm and a ruptured ligament in her knee. But her condition was surprisingly good enough to walk without assistance.

Days later she managed to find the main site of the crash. There she found just bodies, some of them crashed into the ground in such a way that they sank several cm into the ground.

As rescue aircraft were searching her without possibility of seeing her, because of the dense vegetation, she decided to find help by herself, surviving in the jungle thanks to the knowledges of the biologists' daughter that she was. After 9 days of a battered hiking, she finally returned to civilization.


Stories of people like Juliane, who survived falls from heights so great, are extremely rare, but there are several.

The Guinness Book of World Records registers that the greatest height a person fell from without dying were 10 kilometers. This is the case of Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant for the Yugoslav airline JAT. On 26 January 1972, she was in Copenhagen, waiting to board a Douglas DC-9 to make the return trip to Yugoslavia, when she saw that one of the passengers who disembarked was very nervous. Vesna boarded the plane, and the next thing she remembers is that one month later she was in a hospital bed in Prague, with her parents beside her. She had both legs plastered, a fractured skull and had suffered brain hemorrhage. Three of the vertebrae of her spine were cracked and she was victim of a temporary paralysis. There was a policeman at the door, keeping guard. She only understood what had happened when she was shown the newspapers: the man in Copenhagen was a terrorist, who cowardly had left a bag with explosives inside the DC-9. When they were overflying Czechoslovakia it exploded, tearing the plane.

One of the first people to reach the wreckage, on the side of a hill covered with snow, was a man who had been a paramedic in the German troops years ago. Among the twisted metal, he found a woman with the torso and head out of the remains, although trapped from the waist down. Incredibly she had a pulse, and this former paramedic knew what to do. That woman was Vesna.

An anecdote perhaps even more incredible is the one that Nick Alkemade could tell. He was an Avro Lancaster crew member at a time when planes used to explode in the air very often: the Second World War. In the night of 23 March 1944, the British bomber of which Alkemade was the tail gunner was attacked by a Junkers Ju 88 fighter, near Berlin. Suddenly, the transparent Plexiglas dome where he was in desintegrated, and all around him was on fire ... including his parachute. Sergeant Alkemade fell from a height of 5 and a half km. He recalled seeing the stars between his feet, while the cold wind calmed his blistered skin. He felt a strange peace and fainted.

Later, he woke up little by little. He realized that he was lying on a thick layer of soft snow, in a dense thicket. He had a wound in the thigh and a bent knee. Looking up, he got to see the moonlight filtering with difficulty through many branches of tall pines, which he had struck. 

Alkemade was rescued by the Nazis, but his incredible fall made him one of the most famous prisoners of concentration camps.


A fall from a height of 10 meters can already be considered fatal. That is, the majority of people falling from greater heights than this die. The higher, the more likely to die.

In those 10 m of height (about three stories) gravity has time to speed the body up to about 14 m/s, or nearly 50 km/h. Falling from 100 m it takes 4,5 seconds to reach the ground, long enough for the force of gravity on Earth be able to increase our speed to 160 km/h. A free fall from 10 000 m in height would, in principle, be enough to reach a terminal velocity of 1600 km/h.

But in practice, something interesting happens. The "free fall" is not really so free. The planet we live on has an atmosphere, that like any fluid, has viscosity. This viscosity is sufficient to oppose the movement of an object and limit its speed. Thus, thanks to this air resistance, a human being falling from a great height to the ground has difficulties in surpassing 200 km/h.

Many have seen on Sunday mornings how Formula 1 drivers crash at speeds sometimes exceeding 200 km/h (which is no less than 55 meters per second) and get out of the wreckage without much help. The secret is in the low deceleration suffered: everything around her or him is built to slow down the speed gradually and avoid the mortal blow. That's why there is a barrier of old tires lining the wall, padded panels in the cockpit of the car and inside the helmet, and even the vehicle itself is designed to collapse and be destroyed in a progressive manner such as to damp the blow. What is left of the race car after such a crash no longer works for the next race, but the most important thing, the pilot, has the possibility of surviving for another Sunday.

Even a normal car on the street can protect their passengers up to 50 km/h.

In the aviation accidents described above, although these people fell from three different heights, no one exceeded 200 km/h. Moreover, any fall from more than 600 meters tends to stabilize at this speed. So they all fell as if they had fallen from the last 600 m only; the rest of the way up does not matter.

Of course, these residual 55 m/s must be removed somehow. For Juliane, it appears that the row of three seats to which her seatbelt held her attached acted as a parachute, especially if we consider that a female teenager usually has little mass. Gusts of rising wind, due to the storm, may have influenced even more so that the rate of fall would have been much less than 200 km/h. At the last moment, the two outer seats (with Juliana hanging, head down, between them) might have get caught in the tree branches in quick succession, before touching the ground.

In the case of flight attendant Vesna, the fact of having fallen inside a piece of fuselage may have had two effects: first we have to analyze what in Aerodynamics is called ballistic coefficient, which explains how a large, heavy object can fall through the air relatively slowly if the object has a low density, for example, if it is hollow. Second, the fuselage may have acted during the crash in some way similar to the Formula 1 car, cushioning the blow by crushing itself. And the hillside, sloped and covered with snow, probably acted like a tire barrier, stopping the fuselage gradually.

The case of Sergeant Alkemade seems harder to explain. But a possible solution to the problem arises if we recall that during the early years of the Space Age it was shown that the human body can withstand an acceleration or deceleration of about 20 g (20 times the acceleration of Earth's gravity) without serious injury. Slowing with a force of 20 g from 55 meters per second down to zero speed means stopping in a distance of only 8 meters. Coincidentally, this is the height that a group of pines full of flexible branches can have.

But make no mistake: these cases are truly special. Though as Vesna reflected, do not call them lucky. Luck would have been not to have fallen at all, in the first place.

A. L.

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Originally published in ABC Color, on 18 June 2007. Photo: This Atlantic Airlines Lockheed L-188C Electra II (registration G-FIZU), leaving Glasgow Prestwick International Airport (United Kingdom) on 8 May 2008, is similar to the aircraft from which Juliane fell. Photo credit: Andy Mitchell (original license, of the photo only, obtained at: With permission from Andy Mitchell.