She Fell 33,000 Feet From a Plane… And Survived

It was January 26, 1972, at some point in the evening. A man named Bruno Honke suddenly heard screaming coming from the direction of a hillside just outside of his village in Czechoslovakia. Both curious and worried, he went to investigate. What he found was the last thing he would ever have expected.

Paul McCartney and Vesna Vulović / Vesna Vulović / Vesna Vulović / Plane crash
Source: YouTube

Over the hill he came upon a gruesome sight: the wreckage of an airplane, which had clearly been torn apart by an explosion. It looked as though no one had survived, but he did hear screaming. Who could have possible endured such a crash and still be alive?

The Woman Who Fell From the Sky

It seemed impossible for anyone to live through such a crash, but Honke soon realized that someone indeed had. The screaming had come from a woman wearing a bloodstained flight attendant’s uniform. Her shoes were missing.

The wreckage of the plane crash.
Source: Imgur

Her name was Vesna Vulović and she didn’t know at the time, but she was the sole survivor of the plane crash and soon to be holder of one of the strangest world records: surviving the highest fall without a parachute. Somehow, miraculously, she fell 33,330 feet from the sky… and lived to tell her tale. This is her tale…

22 and Eager to Learn English

Born in Serbia, Vesna Vulović was 22 years old when she fell out of the sky. She had been a flight attendant for just eight months by the time the crash occurred. It was after going to London to learn English that she realized she had a love of traveling.

Vesna Vulović poses in her uniform.
Source: Facebook

She loved the Beatles and would sing their songs with friends, so she “especially enjoyed English.” At the end of her first year of learning the language, she went to England to improve her new skills. She initially stayed with her parent’s friends in Newbury, but wanted to be in London.

London for a Day

It was in London that she met a friend who suggested they go to Stockholm. “When I told my parents I was living in the Swedish capital, they thought of the drugs and the sex and told me to come home at once,” Vesna recalled.

A close-up of Vesna Vulović.
Source: Imgur

Then, when she discovered that her friend was becoming a flight attendant and because of it she got to travel the world, Vesna jumped at the opportunity. Back in Belgrade, she met a friend in a JAT uniform. “She looked so nice and had just been to London for the day!”

Passing the Medical Exam

She continued: “I thought, “Why shouldn’t I be an air hostess? I could go to London once a month.” That’s how she started flying. In fact, she didn’t even have a permanent contract. In 1971, she joined JAT Airways, Yugoslavia’s national carrier and their largest airline.

Vesna Vulović is posed on the tarmac.
Source: Facebook

Vesna’s flight traveling dream almost didn’t come true, though, and it was because of her health. With a history of low blood pressure, she knew her condition would make her unlikely to pass the medical exam. But she didn’t want her health to get in the way.

Her Plan Worked

So, right before heading into the medical exam, she drank numerous cups of coffee in the hopes that it would raise her blood pressure. Luckily for her, it worked. Vesna was welcomed into the flight attendant training program. She was excited and completely unaware of her near future… and near-death experience.

Vesna Vulović poses for a magazine cover with a cat.
Source: Imgur

She later explained how every six months, she and the other attendants had to go through security training, but they never discussed possible terrorist attacks. “I think my accident was the first incident of terrorism. After my accident X-ray machines were deployed at all airports in the world. Not before.”

Getting (Accidentally) Assigned to Flight 367

Eight months into her role as a flight attendant, Vesna was told that she was assigned to join the crew of JAT Flight 367. The flight was from Stockholm to Belgrade with a connection in Copenhagen. Apparently, JAT had made a mistake; the airline confused her with another attendant who was also named Vesna.

A photo of Vesna Vulović.
Source: Facebook

Although it was the other Vesna who was supposed to join flight 367, she agreed to join the flight anyway. It was a decision that she wished she never made. At the time, though, it was another travel opportunity. She had never been to Denmark.

A Downtrodden Crew

However, she seemed to be the only one on the flight crew that was excited. The rest of the staff was noticeably downtrodden. Vesna and her colleagues had all afternoon and the following morning free. She was hoping to get some sightseeing into her day, but the rest of the team seemed was focused on shopping and hanging out in the hotel.

Vesna Vulović is looking at artifacts in a museum.
Source: Reddit

The captain, Vesna later recalled, had acted quite bizarrely. He spent 24 hours locked up in his hotel room, refusing to come out at all. Vesna, on the other hand, was a happy camper. “I had always dreamed of staying in a Sheraton Hotel, and I had a room there for one night,” she recalled.

An Eerie Feeling in the Air

“I wanted to see the monuments, but my colleagues had a feeling that something would happen to them.” She remembered everybody wanting to buy something for their families. So she had to go shopping with them.

A photo of Vesna Vulović.
Source: Imgur

“They seemed to know that they would die,” Vesna admitted. “They didn’t talk about it, but I saw …. I felt for them.” In the morning, during breakfast, the co-pilot was talking about his kids “as if nobody else had a son or daughter.”

On January 26, 1972, at 1:30 pm, the crew arrived at the Copenhagen Airport to board Flight 367.

46 Minutes Into the Flight…

After usual procedure, and the passengers and previous crew deplaned, 28 new passengers and Vesna’s crew boarded. The flight took off at 3:15 pm. 46 minutes later, disaster struck. At exactly 4:01 pm, an explosion took place in one of the baggage compartments.

The crash site of flight 367.
Source: Twitter

The aircraft split into two in mid-air before soaring 33,330 feet down to the ground in Srbská Kamenice, Czechoslovakia. Vesna, for some reason, was the only one to make it. And it was a good think that Honke, the man in the village, was the one who found the wreckage.

The Medic Who Found Her in the Wreckage

Honke had been a medic during World War II. Thanks to his knowledge and experience, he was able to keep Vesna alive until rescuers arrived. But it was a real challenge. Due to the incredible fall, she was suffering from two broken legs, three broken vertebrae, a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, and a fractured skull.

Bruno Honke visits Vesna Vulović in the hospital.
Source: Imgur

She was taken to a hospital in Prague, where she spent several weeks in a coma. She had already endured major injuries from the fall, and on top of it all, she had a brain hemorrhage and total amnesia.

She Couldn’t Remember a Thing

When asked what happened, Vesna didn’t know how to answer. She remembered nothing. From the hour before the crash until nearly a month afterward, Vesna had no clue as to what happened to her. In the early aftermath, all she remembered was greeting passengers for the flight.

Vesna Vulović is in her hospital bed.
Source: YouTube

After that, it was all a blank. As soon as she woke up from her four-week coma, the first thing she asked for was a cigarette. Beyond the amnesia were her injuries, which could easily have left her paralyzed or dead. Amazingly, however, she was walking within 10 months of her fall.

She Says It Was Her Diet

Doctors were very pleased, but also baffled. They never expected her to fare as well as she did. She was hospitalized for nearly a year and a half. Her recovery period was relatively short and very successful. She attributed her speedy recovery to “a childhood diet that included chocolate, spinach, and fish oil.”

Vesna Vulović is holding up a glass of wine.
Source: Facebook

You’re probably wondering how the hell does someone survive such a fall? Well, according to air safety investigators, it was likely that Vesna’s position within the aircraft at the time of the blast helped her survive the fall.

Saved by the Cart

She had been in rear of the plane with a food cart. When the fuselage broke apart after the explosion, and while many passengers were sucked out of the plane, Vesna was pinned by the cart. The tiny section she was standing in then fell to the ground.

Footage of Vesna Vulović.
Source: YouTube

Vesna later confirmed that she wasn’t in the back of the plane when it happened. Honke, who found her, told her that she was in the middle of the plane. “I was found with my head down and my colleague on top of me,” she described.

Lucky Indeed

One part of her body with her leg was in the plane while her head was out of the plane. The food cart was pinned against her spine, which kept her in the plane. Honke told her just how lucky she was.

The plane crash site.
Source: Tumblr

But the ground she fell on also cushioned the fall; she landed on a heavily wooded, snow-covered hillside. Her doctors agreed with the air investigators’ conclusions, and added their own. They claimed that it was what nearly kept her from becoming a flight attendant that ended up saving her life.

And Her Blood Pressure

That’s right: her blood pressure. Vesna’s doctors believed it was her low blood pressure that kept her heart from literally bursting on impact when coming in contact with the mountainside. While free-falling, she lost consciousness.

Vesna Vulović in her hospital bed.
Source: YouTube

Perhaps it’s a blessing that she didn’t experience the actual act of falling from a plane. That alone could knock someone out. As it turns out she only learned about what happened to her from a newspaper. “They told me when I was still in Prague some two weeks after the accident. The doctor gave me a newspaper and I read it.”

She Had No Fear of Flying

She doesn’t remember being told, though. “I was told I fainted and that they had to give me injections because I was in such shock.” Also shocking is that fact that she continued to fly. Because of her amnesia, she didn’t feel the fear that she would have experience had she recalled every moment.

Vesna Vulović / Plane crash
Source: YouTube

Believe it or not, she kept flying and had absolutely no trauma from airplanes. When Vesna was still in recovery and transported by flight from Prague to Belgrade, she was offered injections to help her steep on the flight. “I refused,” she said. “I was looking forward to flying again.”

What About the Explosion?

Okay, but what about that explosion? Explosions aren’t supposed to just happen on airplanes. Was it a bomb? The answer is yes. It was determined that a briefcase bomb was planted by the Ustaše – a Croatian separatist group looking for independence from Yugoslavia.

Vesna Vulović / Plane crash site.
Source: Imgur

Reportedly, an air traffic controller was alerted about a potential planted bomb tried to contact the plane to no avail. They continued to track the plane as it entered Czechoslovak airspace, but eventually the radar vanished as it split into three pieces.

Who Planted the Bomb?

Vesna later recalled seeing all the passengers and crew deplane at the Copenhagen Airport. “One man seemed terribly annoyed. It was not only me that noticed him either. Other crew members saw him, as did the station manager in Copenhagen.”

Vesna Vulović takes part in an interview.
Source: The New York Times

Was he the man who planted the bomb? It could be, but no one knows for sure. “I think he had checked in a bag in Stockholm, got off in Copenhagen, and never re-boarded the flight,” Vesna said. The last thing she remembered was seeing a few women cleaning the plane.

Was It a Terrorist Attack?

Croatian nationalists, which were ultimately held responsible, had been accused of carrying out over 100 terrorist attacks in Yugoslavia between the 1960s and 1980s. One anonymous member had placed a phone call to a Swedish newspaper, claiming responsibility for the attack.

Vesna Vulović poses beside an airplane.
Source: YouTube

Still, no arrests were made. Vesna said that the police were worried about her after the accident as she thought she saw the man who may have put the bomb on the plane. Police guarded her hospital room door. Nobody could enter except her parents and doctors.

Or the Government’s Mistake?

Years later, a Czech aerospace journal published an article suggesting that it may have been Czechoslovak air defenses that mistakenly shot down Flight 367. German journalists proposed a similar theory, referring to documents from the Czech Civil Aviation Authority.

Paramedics escort Vesna Vulović to the hospital.
Source: Tumblr

The government documents indicated that the airliner was probably destroyed at low altitude when it attempted a forced landing after flying too close to a sensitive military facility storing nuclear weapons. Vesna, however, was told that the Ustaše were the ones who ultimately caused her to nearly die that day.

A Unique Guinness Record

Vesna became something of a local celebrity after the accident. She even earned a unique position in the Guinness Book of Records in 1985 and had a folk song written in her honor by Miroslav Ilic, a popular recording artist in Serbia.

Vesna Vulović receives her world record beside Paul McCartney
Source: Imgur

Vesna received her medal at a ceremony in London, and the one who handed her the honor was none other than Paul McCartney. “I told him he was the most fabulous man in England and that because of him I started flying,” Vesna related. “I got to know Linda too. I was even invited to his parties.”

People Fall From the Sky, Evidently

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the fact that she fell 33,000 feet is irrelevant because it’s estimated that the human body reaches 99% of its low-level term velocity after failing 1,880 feet. That only takes 13 to 14 seconds. There have been people who survived falls above 1,880 feet.

Vesna Vulović poses with her world record.
Photo by PA Images/Getty Images

For example, in 1942, a Russian bailed out of his plane at 22,000 feet when being attacked by the Germans. He, like Vesna, landed in thick snow and made a quick recovery. Another war account saw RAF gunner Nick Alkemande falling 18,000 feet and surviving with only a sprained leg.

After the Pan Am Bombing

30 years after the crash, Philip Baum visited Belgrade to hear Vesna’s story from her own mouth. Back in 1988, in the aftermath of the Lockerbie disaster (the Pan Am flight bombing), there was speculation as to whether the victims knew of their impending fate.

Vesna Vulović takes part in an interview.
Source: YouTube

It was believed that many lost consciousness because of lack of oxygen at 31,000 feet, but they would have come to at about 15,000 to 10,000 feet, meaning they may have been aware of what was happening for the final third of their fall. Baum was fascinated by Vesna’s account and had to ask her about it.

Waking Up in the Hospital

When asked what was the first think she recalled, Vesna told Baum that it was seeing her parents in the hospital, a month after the crash, when she woke up from her coma. “I was talking to them and asking them why they were with me in Slovenia.”

Vesna Vulović sits in her hospital bed talking to her doctors.
Source: Imgur

Apparently, she was under the impression that she was in Slovenia – that she just visited Ljubljana before going to Copenhagen. As for her biggest injury, Vesna said it was her brain. She was also paralyzed from the waist down, and only after an operation was able to move her left leg.

She Wanted to Remain a Flight Attendant

After fully recovering from her injuries, she intended to continue as a flight attendant. But she was told that she simply wasn’t healthy enough to fly. The truth, as Vesna recalled it, was that she was healthy, the airline just didn’t want her back.

Vesna Vulović is sitting at home.
Source: Facebook

“They didn’t want me because they didn’t want so much publicity about the accident.” Eventually, however, they gave her a job, yet it was office-based where she had to negotiate freight contracts. After 18 years, she was “forced to retire” because of her views about Slobodan Milosovic (the former president of Serbia), she explained.

Constantly Close to Death

Vesna said she tried to persuade her colleagues not to vote for him, and eventually her pay was reduced. Vesna also married five years after the incident. The way she put it, she “got happily married in 1977 and then happily divorced 10 years ago!”

Vesna Vulović poses beneath an airplane.
Source: Imgur

While the doctors told her that she could have a baby, and she did get pregnant, it was an ectopic pregnancy. “I was, once again, close to death several times.” After all that happened to her, Vesna never considered herself lucky.

No, She’s Not Lucky

“Everybody thinks I am lucky, but they are mistaken,” Vesna declared. “If I were lucky I would never have, this accident and my mother and father would be alive.” She said that the accident ruined their lives, too.

A photo of Vesna Vulović.
Source: Facebook

She told Baum that perhaps it was that she was born “in the wrong place,” but then again “to die is pure destiny” – be it in a plane or in the street. In her retirement, Vesna continued her campaign against the president of her country, and regularly demonstrated in the streets of Belgrade.

RIP Vesna

Vesna passed away in 2016 at the age of 66. Serbian radio stations reported her death without giving a cause. According to a Serbian daily newspaper, Blic, locksmiths discovered her body in her apartment after having to forcefully open the door.

A photo of Vesna Vulović.
Source: YouTube

A neighbor called Vesna’s brother after she wasn’t answering her phone calls. The cause of death isn’t recorded but she was said to have struggled with heart ailments in the years leading up to her death. She spent her last years divorced and living on a 300-Euro pension in a run-down apartment in Belgrade.

No One Has Broken Her Record

She also eventually expressed survivor guilt… “Whenever I think of the accident, I have a prevailing, grave feeling of guilt for surviving it and I cry.” She concluded with: “Then I think maybe I should not have survived at all.”

Vesna Vulović poses on the tarmac.
Source: YouTube

She became a devout Orthodox Christian as her way of dealing with her fading mental health. She declined offers of therapy for her survivors’ guilt. To this day, Vesna Vulovic is in the Guinness book of World Records as having the “Highest fall survived without a parachute.” Her record has yet to be broken.