The 'miracle woman' who fell 33,000ft and survived

miracle woman vesna vulovic survives 33000ft fall

There are some stories that we may have heard as children that gave us a mystifying sense of anything being possible. The story of Vesna Vulović would appear to be one of those. On January 26, 1972, 22-year old Flight Attendant Vesna was aboard JAT Flight 367 over what today is the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) en route from Stockholm to Belgrade when the DC-9 aircraft exploded, breaking into two pieces. Of the 28 passengers and crew on board the flight, 27 perished leaving Vulović, somehow miraculously, to be discovered by rescue workers at the scene of the accident.

According to a Telegraph article:

None of [other passengers] and crew survived An investigation concluded that flight JAT 367 had been destroyed while cruising at 33,000 feet by a bomb planted by Croatian separatists. For her remarkable survival Ms Vulovic won a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.

But mystery surrounds the crash. No one claimed responsibility, there were never any arrests and in 2009 two German journalists claimed the Czechoslovak air force had shot down DC-9 by mistake at an altitude of perhaps just 2,600 feet as it tried to make an emergency landing.

Ms Vulovic, now 62, can shed no light on the matter.

The last thing she remembers is greeting the passengers as they boarded. Her next memory, she said, is waking up in a Czech hospital and asking a doctor for a cigarette.

Much like my article previously in the week where I noted that the story of a Soldier who stole a helicopter and flew around Washington, D.C. left me thinking that it may have been a hoax, so too did this when I heard of her unbelievable story in the mid 1990s. And I'm glad I remembered her, too, since I doubt I would have paid much attention to the recent news of her passing away due to undetermined causes otherwise. Upon reading of her death this past December, and in a twist of irony, it seems that many of the readers were clear in expressing that it was only in knowing of her death did they now know the story of her life..

So how does one survive a fall from 33,000 feet? Despite starting this story describing a child-like mystery that stories like these bring to bear on things we cannot easily explain, the aviator and adult Joe Burlas who read multiple versions of the story would instead attribute her survival less to miracles and more to aerodynamics forces and wind resistance on the part of the wreckage she was discovered in. She certainly did not survive a 33,000 foot free-fall.

According to testimony of rescue crews that found her, she was discovered in the mostly intact tail section of the aircraft that slammed into and then slid down a snow-covered mountain side before finally coming to rest. Citing an often joked about truth in aviation that "it's not the speed that will kill you, it's the sudden deceleration," Vulović lucked out when her second of the aircraft did not come to land on a flat surface but instead glanced off of an angled surface which allowed her to be slowed down under obviously survivable, however still violent, circumstances.

An article in the Guardian describes the rest:

Trapped in the plane’s tail, Vulović plummeted to earth in sub-zero temperatures and landed on a steep, heavily wooded slope near a village. The fuselage tumbled through pine branches and into a thick coating of snow, softening the impact and cushioning its descent down the hill, crash investigators said at the time.

Vulović was rescued by a woodsman who followed her screams in the dark forest. She was rushed to hospital where she fell into a coma for 10 days. She had a fractured skull, two crushed vertebrae and a broken pelvis, ribs and legs. It was suspected that a bomb had been planted inside the jet during a stopover in Copenhagen. No arrests were ever made.

In 1985 Vulović entered the Guinness Book of Records for the highest fall survived without a parachute.

However, in 2009 two investigative journalists in Prague claimed the plane had probably been mistaken for an enemy aircraft and shot down by the Czechoslovakian air force, causing it to fall and break up at a much lower height than previously believed.

Based on secret documents mainly from the Czech civil aviation authority, unearthed after more than a year of research, Peter Hornung and Pavel Theiner said they did not believe the aircraft had been blown up by Croatian nationalists as the Yugoslav government, backed by Czechoslovakian authorities, claimed.

“It is extremely probable that the aircraft was shot down by mistake by the Czechoslovak air force and in order to cover it up the secret police conceived the record plunge,” Hornung said.

Initially paralysed from the waist down, Vulović eventually made almost a full recovery and even returned to work for the airline in a desk job.

She never regained memory of the accident or her rescue. She said in 2008 that she could only recall greeting passengers before takeoff from the airport in Denmark, and then waking up in hospital with her mother at her side.

She went on to put her celebrity at the service of political causes, protesting against Slobodan Milošević’s rule in the 1990s and later campaigning for liberal forces in elections.


"I enjoyed my service flying very much. That is where I learned the discipline of flying. In order to have the freedom of flight you must have the discipline. Discipline prevents crashes." - Captain John Cook
The 'miracle woman' who fell 33,000ft and survived The 'miracle woman' who fell 33,000ft and survived Reviewed by Joe Burlas on February 22, 2017 Rating: 5