Wings of Hope: Juliane Koepcke’s Remarkable Ordeal & Survival

Juliane Koepcke and Werner Herzog in the Wings of Hope documentary
Juliane Koepcke and Werner Herzog at the crash site in 1998.

This 1998 TV documentary film is by Werner Herzog, the legend responsible for the classic Grizzly Man (2005). Amongst many others.

And it concerns Juliane Koepcke. On December 24th, 1971, she was just 17. The LANSA Flight 508 she and her mother took from Lima to Pucallpa, Peru, was struck by lightning.

The plane crashed into the jungle, with Koepcke freefalling 3,000 metres (9,843 feet) into the Amazon rainforest. And that was just the beginning of a horrendous survival ordeal.

Juliane Koepcke’s 11 Day Amazon Trek in Wings of Hope

The full Wings of Hops documentary is above, if you want to watch it.

Herzog’s documentaries have an unusual quality to them. One where he’s often holding the camera, which hovers around interviewing people getting in their face.

It takes a bit of getting used to, as there’s often awkward silences as people not used to being on camera try to adjust to it. But it does create a unique unease to proceedings that works very well.

There are many remarkable aspects to this story. One of which is its close proximity to the legendary Andes Plane Crash of 1972. That was vividly retold in the quite staggering 2008 documentary Stranded: I’ve come from a plane that crashed on the mountains.

As with the survivors of the Andes ordeal, Koepcke was media shy in the immediate aftermath of her ordeal. She disappeared into recuperation and obscurity.

But in 1998, filmmaker Werner Herzog finally caught up with her after decades of trying. For Herzog, this was of particular importance as a story.

He and Koepcke were at the same airport in 1971, with Herzog busy with Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) and scouting for filming locations. He was supposed to be on LANSA Flight 508, but at the very last minute there was a change of plan.

Herzog’s narrow escape from certain death had long fascinated him.

But for Koepcke, having remarkably survived a two-mile plummet into the rainforest, the real struggle was about to follow. 11 whole days of it.

She wasn’t unused to the Amazon. Her parents were biologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke and ornithologist Maria Koepcke. And when their daughter was 14, they moved to Panguana to establish a research station in the rainforest.

Authorities disapproved of that arrangement and their daughter was required to return to Deutsche Schule Lima Alexander von Humboldt to finish her studies.

The night before the crash, Koepcke was busy celebrating her school graduation ball.

In March 2012, she provided a lengthy written account to the BBC about her ordeal: How I survived a plane crash. This is what she wrote, in pretty terrifying detail.

“I saw a very bright light on the outer engine on the left. My mother said very calmly: ‘That is the end, it’s all over.’ Those were the last words I ever heard from her.

The plane jumped down and went into a nose-dive. It was pitch black and people were screaming, then the deep roaring of the engines filled my head completely.

Suddenly the noise stopped and I was outside the plane. I was in a freefall, strapped to my seat bench and hanging head-over-heels. The whispering of the wind was the only noise I could hear.

I felt completely alone.

I could see the canopy of the jungle spinning towards me. Then I lost consciousness and remember nothing of the impact. Later I learned that the plane had broken into pieces about two miles above the ground.”

Her mother’s body wasn’t recovered until 12th January 1972.

Juliane Koepcke survived the crash likely as she was strapped into her plane seat during her freefall, attached to another row of seats that acted as a parachute. That slowed her fall and cushioned her abrupt stop on the ground. But it did break her collarbone.

The thunderstorm’s updraft will have also slowed her fall, as did the thick rainforest foliage she plunged into.

She spent the next 11 days walking out of the rainforest, most of the time having to submerge herself into rivers and water to try and find civilization.

Along the way, her wounds became infested with maggots and she faced severe insect bites from the likes of grotesque, nightmarish bot flies.

Eventually, the 17 year old made her way to a hut in the jungle and rested there until loggers came to her assistance and returned her to civilization.

What’s intriguing about Wings of Hope is Koepcke is there, revisiting all these locations again for the first time in 17 years. And she’s remarkably calm about it all.

She later described it as a cathartic experience—a psychological wound healer.

But other survivors of extreme ordeals, such as Joe Simpson of Touching the Void fame, suffered PTSD due to revisiting the site of their ordeal.

It’s Koepcke’s calm that adds real clarity to Wings of Hope.

Whilst not Herzog’s best documentary, its ability to explore the sole crash survivor’s thoughts and feelings upon returning to the very location makes for a remarkable viewing experience.

Even if only to relieve the nightmare one young woman went through, with her survival depending on guile, bravery, and good luck.

About Juliane Koepcke

Juliane Diller (née Koepcke) is now 67. She’s spent her career working as a mammologist, specialising in bats.

She doesn’t provide many interviews. The only one we could come across, outside Wings of Hope (which is pretty definitive) is the above clip. The interview is in Spanish.

Although media shy, later in life she wrote the 2011 autobiography When I Fell from the Sky (Als ich vom Himmel fiel), indicating how long she had to wait to be able to process the ordeal.

It’s similar to Nando Parrado from the Andes Plane Crash, who waited from 1972 until 2006 before publishing his account in Miracle in the Andes.

Since the advent of the internet, many stories of remarkable survival like hers have reached more people. Including younger generations. And so the interest has reached a new peak she likely wasn’t expecting after 1971.

Online fervour has peaks and troughs, which she seems to have handled with cool aplomb. She simply just makes herself quite scarce and gets on with her life.

According to her career profile, she’s worked at Zoologische Staatssammlung München since 1989 (although there’ conflicting information online about her current role). She’s been happily married to her husband for over 30 years and is settled in Munich.

Dispense with some gibberish!

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