Approximate flight path of OB-R-941
|Date||December 24, 1971|
|Summary||Pilot error, Lightning strike|
|Site||Puerto Inca, Peru|
|Survivors||1 (Juliane Koepcke)|
|Aircraft type||Lockheed L-188A Electra|
|Operator||Lineas Aéreas Nacionales Sociedad Anonima|
LANSA Flight 508 was a Lockheed L-188A Electra turboprop, registered OB-R-941, operated as a scheduled domestic passenger flight by Lineas Aéreas Nacionales Sociedad Anonima (LANSA), that crashed in a thunderstorm en route from Lima to Pucallpa, Peru on December 24, 1971, killing 91 people-all 6 of its crew and 85 of its 86 passengers. It was the worst lightning strike disaster in history. The sole survivor was 17-year-old Juliane Koepcke, who while strapped to her seat fell 2 miles (3 km) into the Amazon rainforest. She survived the fall and was then able to walk through the jungle for 10 days until being rescued by local lumbermen. The Electra was LANSA's last aircraft; the company lost its operating permit a few weeks later.
LANSA Flight 508 departed Lima's Jorge Chávez International Airport just before noon on Christmas Eve on its way to Iquitos, Peru, with a scheduled stop at Pucallpa, Peru. The aircraft was flying at about 21,000 ft (6,400 m) above Mean Sea Level when it encountered an area of thunderstorms and severe turbulence. There was evidence the crew decided to continue the flight despite the hazardous weather ahead, apparently because of pressure to meet the holiday schedule.
The lone survivor, a 17-year-old German Peruvian teenager named Juliane Koepcke, later described: "The clouds became darker and darker and the flight became more turbulent. Then we were in the midst of pitch-black clouds and a proper storm with thunder and lightning. It was pitch-black all around us and there was constant lightning. Then I saw a glistening light on the right wing... The motor was hit by lightning."
At about 12:36 p.m. local time, a lightning strike ignited the fuel tank in the right wing, which quickly led to structural failure of the aircraft and an extremely steep fall. Although it is not uncommon for engines to be hit by lightning, the Electra aircraft they were on wasn't built for flying in heavy turbulence due to its very rigid wings. Koepcke stated the wing "definitely didn't explode." Rather, the plane was simply ripped apart in the air after the wing fell off. As the plane disintegrated, Koepcke fell into the Amazon rainforest 2 miles (3 km) below, while strapped to her seat. Despite sustaining in the fall a broken collar bone, a deep gash to her right arm, an eye injury and concussion, she was able to trek through the dense Amazon jungle for 10 days and found shelter in a hut where she waited for the owners, local lumbermen, who subsequently took her by canoe back to civilization. It was later discovered that as many as 14 other passengers also survived the initial fall from the disintegrated plane but were unable to seek help and died while awaiting rescue.
"About forty minutes after take-off, the aircraft entered a zone of strong turbulence and lightning. After flying for twenty minutes in this weather at FL210 lightning struck the aircraft, causing fire on the right wing which separated, along with part of the left wing. The aircraft crashed in flames into mountainous terrain."
The final summary of the cause of the accident was:
"The aircraft suffered a lightning strike, which led to a fire and the separation of the right wing. Intentional flight into hazardous weather conditions."
Juliane Koepcke was a high school senior studying in Lima, intending to become a zoologist like her father, Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke. Her mother Maria Koepcke, a leading Peruvian ornithologist, was travelling with Juliane from Lima back to their home at Panguana, a nature reserve they had founded near Pucallpa a few years previously, where Hans-Wilhelm was awaiting their return in time for Christmas. Juliane Koepcke was the sole survivor of the accident.
She said of the crash:
I heard the incredibly loud motor and people screaming and then the plane fell extremely steeply. And then it was calm-incredibly calm compared with the noise before that. I could only hear the wind in my ears. I was still attached to my seat. My mother and the man sitting by the aisle had both been propelled out of their seats. I was free-falling, that's what I registered for sure. I was in a tailspin. I saw the forest beneath me-like 'green cauliflower, like broccoli,' is how I described it later on. Then I lost consciousness and regained it way later, the next day.
The reason for Koepcke surviving her free-fall is unknown; however some have speculated that the row of seats she was strapped to played a crucial role by rotating like a helicopter, slowing her descent. The row may also have helped by cushioning her fall as it struck the dense forest on her way down. The cushion of her seat may have also played a small role. Over the next 19 hours, Koepcke found herself falling in and out of consciousness. At some point she managed to regain her consciousness, perhaps because of the heavy rainfall. She was wearing only a sleeveless mini-dress, and lacked her spectacles and one of her sandals. Her injuries from the fall included a broken collar bone, a torn ACL, a strained vertebra in her neck, a partially fractured shin, several deep lacerations on her arms and legs, and one eye was swollen shut due to popped capillaries as a result of rapid decompression of the aircraft.
Her ensuing struggle to survive in the jungle was as dangerous, if not more so, than the destruction of the aircraft and her free-fall of approximately three kilometers. It took her half a day to regain her ability to stand without feeling dizzy. After regaining her ability to stand and then her ability to walk, despite her injuries, she spent her first day in the jungle searching for her mother, Maria Koepcke. During her search she found a bag of candy, which was her only food source during her entire ordeal. After searching for her mother for a whole day, she decided to abandon her search and find rescue.
Having learned survival skills from her father, she decided to follow a river downstream. She tested the ground in front of her for snakes by throwing her remaining shoe on the ground. Having lost her spectacles in addition to the eye injury, her vision was doubly hindered. Nevertheless, she continued to travel in the water as well as on the river banks, constantly being alert for a possible encounter with a snake. Fortunately she never encountered one.
Koepcke reported hearing king vultures around her, recognizing them from her previous encounters with them while living at her parents' research station only a-year-and-a-half previously. She figured that there must be dead bodies in the area, though it wasn't until the next day that she discovered some. She came across three passengers still strapped to their seats who had landed head-first into the ground. She said of the encounter:
I couldn't really see that much, only people's feet pointing up. I poked their feet with a stick. I couldn't touch the dead bodies. I couldn't smell anything and they hadn't been eaten yet or started to decay. I mean, sure, decay must have started, but I couldn't notice it. I could tell it was a woman because she had polished toenails and the others must have been two men, judging by their pants and shoes. I moved on after a while, but in the first moment after finding them, it was like I was paralyzed.
After several days of following the river, several of her wounds became infected, one of the larger ones becoming infested with maggots. Having seen her dog become infested with maggots once before, she attempted to remove the maggots by squeezing her wound, as well as removing them with a stick. Both attempts failed. On the tenth day of her ordeal she finally came across a boat, which at first she thought was a mirage. She managed to crawl up a path next to the boat, and she came across a small hut that was being used by lumbermen. Although the hut was empty at the time, she found an outboard motor and some diesel fuel in a barrel. She used a tube she found to suck out some of the fuel from the barrel and she attempted to remove the maggots by applying the diesel fuel on her wound, a method she learned from her father when attempting to remove the maggots from the family dog. She reported the maggots initially tried to burrow deeper into her arm, but eventually came to the surface, and she was able to successfully pick them out.
She initially attempted to sleep in the hut, but after finding the ground was too hard, she decided to go back down to the riverside and lie in the sand. The next day, she woke up to find several poisonous dart frogs, which she did not know were poisonous at the time, and she attempted to catch them. Fortunately, she failed to catch any and gave up. Reviewing her other options, she considered whether or not to take the boat, but ultimately decided not to as she believed doing so would be theft. She decided to spend the night in the hut.
After she had been in the hut for some time, she heard voices nearby. As the voices grew nearer she saw three lumbermen come out of the forest. At first the lumbermen were startled, thinking she was a water spirit. However she described her ordeal to them and, having already heard about a plane crash in the area, the lumbermen believed her and fed her and cared for her wounds. After caring for her for a short time, the lumbermen took her on a seven-hour boat ride to a lumber village.
Once she arrived at the village, a local pilot volunteered to fly her to a nearby hospital in Pucallpa run by missionaries. The flight took about fifteen minutes and a day after arriving at the hospital, Koepcke saw her father again. After her reunion with her father, Koepcke helped search parties to locate the crash site and the bodies of the victims. On January 12, the search parties discovered Maria Koepcke's body. Apparently her mother had survived the fall as well and lived for several days; however she was prevented from moving as a result of her severe injuries.
The movie "Miracles Still Happen" (1974)  is based on the story. Koepcke's story was also told in 2000 in the documentary film Wings of Hope by director Werner Herzog; he had narrowly missed Flight 508 himself. Koepcke's memoir Als ich vom Himmel fiel was published by the German publisher Piper Malik on March 10, 2011. (The English edition When I Fell From the Sky, was published by Titletown Publishing in November 2011.)