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Stewardess Survives 33,000ft Crash!

By Patrick Mondout

On January 26, 1972, a Yugoslav Airlines DC-9 departed from Copenhagen for Belgrade (via Zagreb) with 28 passengers and crew. At an altitude of approximately 33,000 feet, a bomb in the cargo section planted by the Ustashe Croatian separatist group exploded. The plane disintegrated and fell into the mountains below.

In what must be one of the greatest survival stories of all time, stewardess Vesna Vulovic survived the 33,000 foot descent in the tail section of the plane.

The 22 year old Vulovic wasn't even supposed to be on that plane. As she later stated in an interview, it was another Vesna who was supposed to be on that flight but she was happy with the mix-up as it allowed her to make her first trip to Denmark. She had a fractured skull, two broken legs, and three broken vertebrae - one of which was crushed and left her paralyzed from the waist down.

Vulovic spent several months in and out of hospitals and operations allowed her to walk once again. She became a celebrity when the Guinness Book of World Records invited her to a ceremony in London with Paul McCartney (she is listed for surviving the longest fall without a parachute). Vulovic is a national hero in Serbia and spent the late 90s marching in Belgrade against Slobodan Milosovic.

After the flight, you might expect that she never got on a plane again. Not so! As she said in a recent interview, "You must remember that I had no memories of the accident. To this day I enjoy traveling and have no fear of flying." Vesna wanted to go back to her old job but JAT officials, not wanting the public to associate the tragedy with their airline, refused. They did giver her a desk job negotiating freight contracts.

JAT DC-9-32

Here is a similar JAT DC-9-32 as seen in Zurich, Switzerland in July 1995.

Image courtesy of AirNikon. Find more of his photos at


Nobody is quite sure how she survived. Physicists will tell you that any fall above 2000 feet and you will reach the terminal velocity of 120 miles per hour (a speed at which you cannot go any faster because of air resistance, as an anonymous reader points out). Vesna had two factors on her side. First, the drag on the tail section of the plane was sufficient to apparently cause the object to spiral down below terminal velocity. Second, the part of the plane she was in hit at an angle on the side of a mountain and continued to travel and thus not all of the forward momentum was stopped at once.

While she feels she would have been luckier to not have been on the plane in the first place, Vesna Vulovic wins our Luckiest Person on the Face of the Earth award for surviving a type of air crash previously believed to be unsurvivable.


Jugoslovenski Aerotransport (JAT) 364 at a Glance
AirlineJugoslovenski Aerotransport (JAT)
DateJanuary 26, 1972
Flight number364
Registration NumberYU-AHT
Crew Fatalities4 of 5
Passenger Fatalities23 of 23
Total Fatalities27 of 28

Air Safety References:
Bartelski, Jan. Disasters in the Air: Mysterious Air Disasters Explained. Airlife Publishing: England, 2001.
Beaty, David. The Naked Pilot: The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents. Airlife Publishing: England, 1996.
Cushing, Steven. Fatal Words: Communication Clashes and Aircraft Crashes University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1997.
Faith, Nicholas. Black Box: The Air-Crash Detectives-Why Air Safety Is No Accident. Motorbooks International, 1997.
Gero, David. Aviation Disasters: The World's Major Civil Airliner Crashes Since 1950. Sutton, 2003.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 1). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1995.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 2). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1996.
Job, Macarthur. Air Disaster (Volume 3). Aerospace Publications: Fyshwick, Australia, 1999.
Krause, Shari Stamford. Aircraft Safety: Accident Investigations, Analyses & Applications. McGraw Hill, New York, 1996.
Macpherson, Malcolm. The Black Box : All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts Of In-flight Accidents. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Macpherson, Malcolm. On a Wing and a Prayer: Interviews with Airline Disaster Survivors. Perennial, 2002.
Owen, David. Air Accident Investigation, 2nd Edition. Motorbooks International, 2002.
Stewart, Stanley. Emergency! - Crisis on the Flight Deck, 2nd Edition. Airlife Publishing, England, 2003.
Walters, James M. Aircraft Accident Analysis: Final Reports. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2000.
Wells, Alexander T. Commercial Aviation Safety, 3rd Edition. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2001.


Share Your Memories!

What do you remember about this crash? Were you a witness? Have you any compelling stories to share? Share your stories with the world! (We print the best stories right here!)

Your Memories Shared!

"I was a flight attendant for United Airlines when this event occurred. Now, nobody believes me if I talk about it.
Our union publication had a photo of the flight attendant. I remember the caption saying something to the effect that she would live to tell her grandchildren about it."


"Terminal velocity is a speed which will go no higher due to air resistence. It is the final velocity a falling object obtains before impact. Thus, the terminal speed of a feather is much lower than that of a person, which is lower than that of a streamlined object like an airplane. Hitting the ground unprotected at 40mph is usually fatal (and a majority of humans that fall from above 30 feet usually die), but properly insulated race car drivers do survive 120mph impacts. There have been one or two reported cases of skydivers surviving total parachute failures, although always with massive injuries. Of course, they usually don't start at airliner altitude, so the stewardess still gets the record."


"The terminal velocity of an average human is 128 mph at sea level. Interestingly, it increases as one goes higher in the atmosphere due to less atmospheric pressure. If one were to fall from an aircraft at 33, 000 and hit the top of Mount Everest at 29, 000 (a fall of 4, 000 feet), one would expect to make a bigger splat than if the person fell all the way to sea level (a fall of 33, 000 feet), as the person's true airspeed would be decreasing through the fall while his indicated airspeed would remain relatively constant throughout. P. S. Newton's experiments in dropping objects off of the Leaning Tower of Pisa resulting in them hitting the ground at the same time proves acceleration due to gravity is constant (32 feet per second per second). Had the distance fallen enabled the objects to reach their respective terminal velocities, the objects would have not hit the ground simultaneously."




Airline: Jugoslovenski Aerotransport (JAT)

Location: Srbska-Kamenice in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic)

Aircraft: DC-9-32

Date: January 26, 1972

Total Fatalities: 27 of 28

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