17-Year-Old Only Survivor in Peruvian Accident
By Patrick Mondout
On Christmas Eve 1971, a Peruvian airliner was struck by lightning in
an area of heavy turbulence at 21,000 feet and crashed into a the Amazon.
Miraculously, a German teenager survived the crashed and walked out of the
jungle nine days later.
The LANSA (Lineas Aereas Nacionales Airlines) Lockheed Electra L-188
had taken off from the Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima a little
after 11:00 p.m. on a flight to Pucallpa, Peru. About a half hour after
takeoff and at about 21,000 feet, the aircraft entered a thunderstorm and
The Electra, known as Mateo Pumacahua, was struck by lightning
which sparked a fire. The pilots immediately had difficulty controlling
the aircraft as systems began failing and it soon went into a dive. While
the crew attempted to level out the plane, the fire and turbulent forces
on the wings caused the right wing and most of the left wing to separate
from the aircraft. The aircraft came crashing down in a mountainous region
of the Amazon.
Juliane Margaret Koepcke had a broken collarbone and was unconscious
for an unknown amount of time but had survived the crashed still strapped
in her seat. When she came to, she set out in vain to find her mother.
Maria Koepcke, her mother and a leading Peruvian ornithologist, was dead.
Rescue crews searched for the aircraft without success. Koepcke would
have to save herself. Several previous trips to the Amazon with her
parents had taught her much about the jungle. Her studies at the German
High School in Lima, which were preparing her for a career as a zoologist
(like her father, who she was attempting to visit), would no doubt help as
Koepcke found a stream and began nine days of wading through knee-high
water and fighting off swarms of insects and leeches. On the ninth day,
she found a canoe and shelter. Then she waited.
Hours later, local lumbermen returned and found her. They tried to get
her to eat but she was quite sick and refused. Insects had buried eggs in
her skin and they were beginning to hatch. One of the men poured gasoline
on her and, as she told the London Daily Mail, "I counted 35 worms
that came out of my arms alone."
The men offered what assistance they could provide but it was too late
in the day to start the journey back to civilization; she slept one more
night in the jungle before the men took her on the final seven hour
journey via canoe down the river to a lumber station where she was
airlifted to a hospital.
When rescue crews finally located the aircraft with Koepcke's help,
they discovered that as many as 14 others had survived the initial crash
but were unable to seek help as the teenager had and died awaiting rescue.
Koepcke is now a biologist in Germany and her ordeal was the subject of
the 1999 Werner Herzog documentary Wings of Hope.
An Italian movie starring Susan Penhaligon was released in 1974 and was
alternatively called The Story of Juliane Koepcke and Miracles
Still Happen. It was so bad that it remains out of print in any
medium. The story was also the subject of a 1979 children's book called Crash
in the Jungle by Jim Alderson.
This was the second LANSA Electra in a year to crash killing 90+
people. LANSA withdrew the aircraft from service shortly thereafter.
Ironically, LANSA had purchased Electras after one of their Lockheed L-749
Constellations had crashed in 1966.
We received the following email from Rebecca Lyon who lost both of her
parents on this flight:
The LANSA flight was from Lima across the Andes to Pucallup. My
husband whose brother Nathan was on the plane tells me the storm that
came in was huge. As the turbulence increased for the airplane, the crew
urged the pilot to return to Lima. Being Christmas Eve he decided to fly
on so the passengers would be able to enjoy the holiday (flight recorded
via my husband). Most of the passengers were Peruvian returning home
My parents, Roger and Margery Hedges, taught children of the staff
and missionary's (Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) aka Wycliffe
here in the states) located in Yarinacocha not far from Pucallup. There
were three others from SIL on board, Nathan Lyon, 13 (my husbands
brother), Harold Davis, 47 and David Eriksson, 19.
As the afternoon progressed Mr. Lyon, who was a pilot, had been
listening on the radio. The plane did not arrive and no replies were
received at ground control in Pucallup. Shortly afterwards the plane was
On December 31, Jerrie Cobb, one of the only women to pass astronaut
training, flew down from Columbia to help with the search. January 2,
1972 hunters brought the only survivor, Juliana Koepcke, 17 out of the
jungle. She was able to provide details that led to the location of the
wreck. January 5, 1972 pieces of the wreck were sighted around
10:00a.m.. That morning Floyd Lyon, father of Nathan, was flying with
Jerrie Cobb. They circled the wreck to mark the location for other
By January 13, 1972, ninety bodies hade been recovered and 52
identified. Nathan and David were buried on January 12th and my parents
with Harold Davis on the 14th. SIL has a small cemetery in Yarinacocha
where their remains lay today.
To the best of my knowledge the cause of the crash was determined to
be human error and structural failure. Juliana Koepcke has said she saw
flames on the right wing leading to speculation that the plane was hit
by lighting. Soon after the plane broke apart or exploded scattering
wreckage over a mile and a half. LANSA airlines had a poor reputation in
Peru. They had been granted a number of extensions of their flight
permit after a suspension in September of 1970 (because of a crash a few
weeks earlier). The extension was due to expire December 31, just days
after the Christmas Eve crash. In January 1972 their flight permit was
I could go into way more detail but this is really the nut of the
story. Juliana Koepcke now lives in Germany. She was part of a
documentary, Wings of Hope, made by Werner Herzog.
Thank you for sharing this with our readers, Rebecca.
Source: The Survivor. Newsweek. January 17, 1972: 39.