This Flight Attendant Fell From 33,000 Feet — and Lived For 44 Years

Vesna Vulović has passed away. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know who she was when she was alive, even though she’s at the heart of one of the strangest or most miraculous stories in the entire history of aviation.

Vulović was a flight attendant on JAT Yugoslav Airlines Flight 367 on January 26, 1972. The flight was scheduled to operate from Stockholm to Copenhagen to Zagreb and then on to Belgrade with a DC-9. Instead it crashed in what was then Czechoslovakia.

The most common explanation for what happened after departing Copenhagen is that the plane was destroyed by an explosion caused by a bomb which was placed there by Croatian terrorists.

After taking off from Copenhagen there are 28 people on board, 23 passengers and 5 crew. Vesna Vulović, 22 years old, is one of the 3 flight attendants that along with the pilot and the copilot have replaced the crew that departed from Sweden. She is working in this flight because the person organising the rotas mixed her up with another colleague also called Vesna. But Vulović was happy about it all since she had always wanted to visit Denmark’s capital and sleep in the Sheraton.

Here’s what makes the story more shocking and miraculous: Vesna Vulović was near the rear of the aircraft when the plane exploded at over 30,000 feet. She was pinned to the back of the plane and feel to earth in the tail of the aircraft. The fall was broken by trees and landed in thick snow. And she survived, holding the world’s record for a fall without a parachute.

Her screams led to her rescue, though she later fell into a coma for some time. Her skull was fractured. Her ribs were broken. So were her legs and her pelvis. And though she was paralyzed from the waist down, she eventually recovered and even returned to work for the airline. She reported had no memory of the crash, however — just boarding the plane, and then waking up in the hospital.

There are those that have been skeptical of this explanation, that she fell from over 30,000 feet. It’s been claimed that the plane was at a lower altitude and was shot down by the Czech military by mistake (and that evidence of explosives, and that the plane was at higher altitude than the fighter jet, were forged).

After all, it was the Czech secret service which led the investigation and the only evidence of terrorism (aside from the explosion itself) were alarm clock parts they found, and an anonymous call to a Swedish newspaper claiming responsibility on behalf of a Croatian group.

However the theory that the plane was shot down isn’t consistent with data from the DC-9s black boxes, which were examined simultaneously by experts from Yugoslavia, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia.

The plausibility of her survival was the subject of an episode of Mythbusters.

Vulović was fired by JAT in 1990 for political activities against Slobodan Milošević. Milošević resigned in 2000, was arrested in 2001 and tried for war crimes, and died in 2006. So she outlasted him by a decade. And the successor to JAT, of course, is Air Serbia.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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