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

Forty eight years ago today Vesna Vulović fell out of the sky from 30,000 feet – and lived.

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.

She passed away in 2016.

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 fell 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 having 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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Comments

  1. She is one of a select group of people who have survived falls from 10,000 feet or more without any aid specifically designed for a passenger to fall more gently to the ground.

    For this JAT flight, did they ever find out how an explosive device got on board the plane if it wasn’t a missile hit or something else? In the 1960s and 70s, there were Croatian exiles living and working in Sweden and Denmark that had serious issues with Yugoslavia, but were any such politically-active exiles considered responsible for this situation?

  2. Thank you for this.
    I read about it when I was a kid and it first happened, and it is has stuck in my mind all these years (and through hundreds of plane flights).
    A truly amazing story. RIP.

  3. I remember a friend telling me about this story in elementary school in the early 80s (though for some reason, I thought it was a somewhat recent event when he told me, I and didn’t realize my friend was telling me a story about something that happened a decade earlier). Of course, there was no internet back then. Friends passed around all kinds of wild stories/urban legends, such as the kid Mikey who ate Life Cereal also happened to eat pop rocks and coke and then died – that rumor was untrue, of course, but I had put this plane story in the same category. At the time, I disputed the possibility of such an event with my friend. At any rate, while the tale stuck in my head for some time, I eventually forgot about it, and I had not thought about this incident/story for well over 35 years until you mentioned it again Gary. Thanks for the interesting story and for jogging my memory about this little miracle. So I guess my friend was telling the truth after all. She was very lucky, and it was nice to see that she was able to go back to a portion of her former life after the fall and live her life to the fullest.

  4. According to some accounts. she didn’t go back to work for the airline as a flight attendant, and instead she had a desk job with the airline after becoming disabled from the incident.

  5. And good for her working against Milosevic, even though it cost her her job. I imagine that an experience like that changes your perspective on what is important in life.

  6. I was telling my son about this and wanted to show him the story. He’s 11 so I had to prove it lol. This was the best page I found on it… si many details!! Thank you!

    Btw, he was truly impressed.

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