They jumped or fell from planes – and lived

Vesna Vulovic – JAT photo

Vesna Vulovic’s 10,160m free-fall

The story of Vesna Vulovic is either one of the greatest survival stories of all time or one of the greatest hoaxes.

The official version favours the former. Unfortunately, Vesna herself was unable to shed any light on the events of 26 January 1972 in the intervening years to her death, in 2016.

As records have it, Vesna, aged 23 at the time and working as a Jugoslavenski Aerotransport (JAT) hostess, survived a fall from 10,160 m (33,333 ft) over Srbská Kamenice, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) on 26 January 1972.

According to the official accident report, an explosion tore the DC-9 to pieces in mid-air. Vesna, working as a stewardess, was the only survivor of the 28 people on board. It was suspected that a bomb in a briefcase was planted inside the plane during a stopover in Copenhagen, Denmark, but nothing was ever proved and there were no arrests.

Authorities attributed the bombing to Ustache, a far-right Nazi/fascist group in Croatia.

In 1985 the Guinness Book of Records recognised the incident for the highest fall survived without a parachute.

But questions have been raised about 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 800 m (2,600 ft) as it attempted an emergency landing.

The questions could have been put to rest by Vesna herself. But she always maintained she had no recollection of the incident, telling interviewers: “I do not remember the accident at all, just my waking up in the Czech hospital the next day and asking a doctor for a cigarette.”

In 2009, a journalistic investigation claimed that the aircraft had broken up at a much lower altitude than stated in the official accident report.

Based on reviews of contemporary reports, newly available documents and eyewitness accounts, the investigators concluded that it was “extremely probable” that the plane was mistaken for an enemy aircraft and shot down by a MiG fighter from the Czechoslovakian air force.

Czech military experts dismiss the report as a conspiracy theory, noting that hundreds of soldiers would have known the truth, yet none have come forward in the decades since. Further, it has been suggested, the West German Air Force would have detected the fighter jets.

Whatever is the accurate version of how far she fell and what caused the plane to break up, Vesna’s survival was remarkable.

The crash report said she was trapped by a food cart in the plane’s tail section as it fell from the sky.

The tail landed in the dark on a heavily wooded and snow-covered side of a mountain.

Vesna was found by Bruno Honke, a woodsman who heard her screaming. Honke had been a medic during World War II and was able to treat her until rescuers arrived.

She suffered a fractured skull and broke her legs. She had three broken vertebrae and was temporarily paralysed from the waist down. She also had broken ribs and a fractured pelvis. She spent 16 months in hospital, more than two weeks in a coma. At one point, her parents were told she would not survive.

But with a series of operations, therapy and her own dogged determination, she made a full recovery and returned to work for the airline.

Reports at the time of the crash said Vesna was not supposed to be on the flight at all. Her schedule had been mixed up with that of another stewardess named Vesna, and she was allocated to the wrong flight.

Her doctors are said to have concluded that her history of low blood pressure caused her to pass out quickly after the cabin depressurised and kept her heart from bursting on impact. Vesna said she knew about her low blood pressure before becoming a flight attendant and also knew that it would result in her failing her medical examination. So, she drank a large amount of coffee before her interview and was accepted

The spectacular survival story won Vesna celebrity status in Serbia, where she channelled her fame into campaigning for political causes.

She was dismissed from her job at the airline in 1990 after taking part in protests against President Slobodan Milosevic. She continued for two more decades to fight against nationalism.

“I am like a cat, I have had nine lives,” she told the New York Times. “But if nationalist forces in this country prevail, my heart will burst.”

She married in 1977 and did not have any children. The final years of her life were spent in seclusion and she continued to struggle with survivor’s guilt. After divorcing, she lived alone in a Belgrade apartment until her death in 2016.

Vesna’s is not the only remarkable story of a sole survivor from a plane crash.

Juliane Koepke survived fall into jungle

Juliane Koepcke was the only survivor of 92 passengers and crew in the 24 December 1971 crash of LANSA Flight 508 in Peru.

Juliane was flying over the Peruvian rainforest with her mother when the plane was hit by lightning. She survived a 3.2 km (10,000 ft)  fall and found herself alone in the jungle, aged just 17.

The LANSA Lockheed Electra OB-R-941 flew into a severe thunderstorm and broke up in mid-air. Juliane fell to earth still strapped into her seat. She survived with a broken collarbone and a gash to her right arm.

Juliane was a German Peruvian high school senior student studying in Lima, to become a zoologist, like her parents. She and her mother, ornithologist Maria Koepcke, were travelling to meet her father, biologist Hans-Wilhelm Koepcke, who was working in the city of Pucallpa.

In 2012 she told the BBC World Service Outlook program: “It was Christmas Eve 1971 and everyone was eager to get home, we were angry because the plane was seven hours late.

“Suddenly we entered into a very heavy, dark cloud. My mother was anxious but I was OK, I liked flying. Ten minutes later it was obvious that something was very wrong.

“There was very heavy turbulence and the plane was jumping up and down, parcels and luggage were falling from the locker, there were gifts, flowers and Christmas cakes flying around the cabin.

“When we saw lightning around the plane, I was scared. My mother and I held hands but we were unable to speak. Other passengers began to cry and weep and scream. After about 10 minutes, 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.”

Juliane recalled the plane going in to a nose dive and finding herself outside still strapped to her seat.

She saw the jungle but passed out before she hit the ground. She said she woke up the next day, surprised she was alive.

Juliane searched for her mother but could not find her. It is thought her mother may have survived the crash but died later of her injuries.

All she could find for food was a bag of sweets. She found a river and wandered alongside it for 10 days.

She told Outlook: “I saw a really large boat. When I went to touch it and realised it was real, it was like an adrenaline shot. But [then I saw] there was a small path into the jungle where I found a hut with a palm leaf roof, an outboard motor and a litre of gasoline. I decided to spend the night there.”

Next day several timber workers who used the shelter arrived. The looked after her injuries and bug infestations. The next morning, they took her on a seven-hour canoe ride down river to a lumber station. A local pilot flew her to Pucallpa where she was taken to hospital and reunited with her father.

Juliane later moved to Germany, where she fully recovered from her injuries. She studied biology at the University of Kiel, graduating in 1980. She received a doctorate from Ludwig-Maximilian University and returned to Peru to conduct research in mammalogy, specialising in bats.

FOOTNOTE: Most recently known as Juliane Diller, she served as librarian at the Bavarian State Zoological Collection in Munich. Her autobiography, Als ich vom Himmel fiel (When I Fell From the Sky), was released on 10 March 2011 by Piper Verlag, for which she received the Corine Literature Prize in 2011.

D.B. Cooper: case closed but it remains unsolved after 40 years

The story of D.B. Cooper remains one of the most intriguing mysteries of the 20th Century. What has been classified as a closed case just won’t go away.

Even four decades later, new claims are still emerging, one investigator revealing he knows the true identity of the infamous hijacker and extortionist.

The saga began when a well-dressed middle-aged man calling himself Dan Cooper (the name on his flight coupon but referred to in the media later as D.B. Cooper) bought a one-way ticket to board a Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 727 jet on 24 November 1971 for a flight (305) from Portland, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington.

Cooper took a seat near the back of the plane and after it was in the air, about 3 pm, handed flight attendant Florence Schaffner a note which she at first ignored, thinking the man was asking her for a date.

But he whispered to her, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.” He told her to sit beside him. She asked to see the bomb and he opened his briefcase to reveal wires and red sticks resembling dynamite.

Cooper wanted four parachutes — two primary and two reserves — and $US 200,000 — worth around $US 1.2 million in today’s value.

The plane circled Sea-Tac Airport in Seattle for two hours as FBI and Seattle police worked to get the money and parachutes. When the plane landed, the money was handed over and Cooper let 36 passengers off, but kept the pilots and one flight attendant on board.

The plane took off, heading south for Mexico at Cooper’s directions to the flight crew. Cooper ordered that the plane be flown with the landing gear down, the flaps at 15%, a speed of no more than 200 mph and an altitude no higher than 10,000 feet. He instructed the crew that the plane should not be pressurised.

The flight crew — pilot William Scott, first office William Rataczak, flight engineer H.E. Anderson and flight attendant Tina Mucklow — convinced him the plane couldn’t be flown to Mexico without refuelling somewhere. Cooper agreed to let the plane land in Reno, Nevada.

But on a dark night in light rain and several minutes after take-off from Seattle at 7.45pm, Cooper sent the flight attendant to the cockpit. He put on the parachute, tied the bank bag full of marked $US 20 notes to himself, lowered the back stairs and somewhere north of Portland jumped into the night. He left behind a black tie that he’d been wearing when he boarded. At around 8pm the flight crew in the cockpit saw a warning light indicating the rear airstair had been activated.  Around 10:15 pm, the plane landed at Reno Airport with the rear airstair still deployed. FBI agents, state troopers, deputies, and police surrounded the jet. But Cooper had gone.

Whether Cooper could have survived the jump has been much debated. Significantly, no parachute was found on the ground in the search area.

In the weeks after the hijacking a newspaper in Reno received letters from someone purporting to be Cooper, seemingly taunting investigators. The FBI was not able to determine who sent the letters.

Nine years after the hijacking, just north of Portland on the Columbia River, a boy named Brian Ingram was digging a fire pit in the sand at a place called Tena Bar. He uncovered three bundles of cash a couple inches below the surface, with rubber bands still intact. There was a total of $US 5,800. The serial numbers matched the money handed over to Cooper.

A family secret

Then in 2011 an Oregon woman claimed her uncle was DB Cooper.

Marla Cooper had told investigators she had a 40-year-old family secret involving an uncle, named Lynn Doyle Cooper.

Marla Cooper said she was eight years old when her uncle whom she called L D Cooper came to her home, badly injured, for Thanksgiving in 1971, the day after the hijacking. He had said his injuries were the result of a car crash.

Ms Cooper never saw her uncle again and was told he died in 1999.

She said her uncle had been fixated on a comic book character named “Dan Cooper” the name the hijacker gave when boarding the plane.

Marla Cooper’s mother, Grace Halley, also believes that her brother-in-law was the skyjacker, and provided further details to the FBI about him.

“I’ve always had a gut feeling it was L.D.,” Ms Hailey told ABC News. “I think it was more what I didn’t know is what made me suspicious than what I did know, because whenever the topic came up it immediately got cut off again.”

Ms Cooper says she was told by the FBI that her evidence was enough for them to close the file on the case.

To that point, the money found in the sand, the black tie and a parachute were the only tangible items of evidence the FBI had.

In 2016, the FBI said it was no longer pursuing the case and resources being spent on the Cooper case would be diverted to “other investigative priorities”.

An FBI statement in July 2016 said: “Over the years, the FBI has applied numerous new and innovative investigative techniques, as well as examined countless items at the FBI Laboratory. In order to solve a case, the FBI must prove culpability beyond a reasonable doubt, and, unfortunately, none of the well-meaning tips or applications of new investigative technology have yielded the necessary proof,” the statement said.

Files related to the Cooper case were archived.

But a year later, DB Cooper was back on the agenda for those still wanting to know the truth. Media reports said a new piece of evidence had been found.

The New York Daily News reported the evidence was “an odd piece of buried foam,” which may have been used in Cooper’s parachute. It was found in a mound of dirt in the deep Pacific Northwest mountains early in August.

Tom Colbert, a Los Angeles TV and film producer said he and his team of volunteer “cold case” investigators believe D.B Cooper is Robert Rackstraw, a 74-year-old Army veteran from San Diego with a criminal record and who had parachute training.

The FBI questioned Rackstraw about the D.B. Cooper case in 1978 and eliminated him as a suspect. Rackstraw has repeatedly denied any involvement. Crew members of the plane were shown images of Rackstraw and said he wasn’t the hijacker. There were reports he had told inmates while in prison that he was D.B. Cooper.

Since he became the focus of Colbert’s team, Rackstraw said he was confronted “two or three times per week” by journalists, amateur sleuths and other interested people who ask him about the chance that he is D.B. Cooper.

Were others involved?

Colbert believes Cooper got away with the daring plan with the help of three partners.

Colbert claims to have 100 pieces of evidence linking Rackstraw to the hijacking. He has written a book (The Last Master Outlaw), kept a website (DBCooper.com) and pursued the FBI for access to sealed evidence. Colbert collaborated with the History Channel on a documentary – “D.B. Cooper: Case Closed?” – about the case and said he was contacted after its airing by a Pacific Northwest couple. The husband had told his wife a story he heard years before at his aviators’ club.

The story was that Cooper recruited three accomplices. One, a pilot, was said to have flown in a Cessna plane in clouds above an airstrip outside the village of La Center, Washington. The other two were waiting in a small truck.

Cooper supposedly landed quite close to his target and the men in the truck blinked their lights to signal the Cessna to land and Cooper was collected and flew away in the Cessna.

The two men in the truck drove up to a mountain logging road and buried the chute and $US 150,000.

The Cessna, according to the story, followed rivers south to Vancouver Lake where Cooper tossed out $US 50,000 and his fake bomb, the supposed idea being to fool investigators into thinking Cooper had drowned.

Cooper and the pilot flew the Cessna on to Scappoose airstrip in Oregon where they switched to another plane and flew back to Portland, and went their separate ways.

The married couple told Colbert the FBI didn’t appear interested in their story, hence their approach to him.

Colbert got a court order for the FBI to release its Cooper files. The files reveal the FBI interviewed La Center area farmers who saw the truck and plane.

Colbert believes the FBI will pick up on the new evidence. He says the information he was given enabled his team to pinpoint the place where the money and parachute were buried. They dug at the site and found what is believed to be an old parachute strap.

There have been other “private” investigations.

A team that included a paleontologist from Seattle’s Burke Museum said particles of pure titanium found in the hijacker’s clip-on tie suggest he worked in the chemical industry or at a company that manufactured titanium.

A 2011 book, Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper, by Geoffrey Gray, referred to several theories, including that Cooper might have been a transgender mechanic from Washington state.

Seattle lawyer Galen Cook, another amateur sleuth, is convinced he has solved the puzzle. He believes William Gossett, a Korean and Vietnam war vet who died in 2003, was Cooper.

But putting a dampener on all the theories, former FBI lead investigator Ralph Himmelsbach believes the hijacker could have never survived the jump: “Most likely he’s still lying in the weeds up there”.

Footnote: Tom Colbert’s account has been recorded by columnist Michael Fitzgerald on recordnet.com and was reported by Fox News in the U.S. The Mercury News, California, in October 2017 carried a comprehensive report on the Cooper case.

 

 

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