Vesna Vulović: The Woman Who Fell From Heaven

Fran Labuschagne / © Culture Trip
Fran Labuschagne / © Culture Trip
Photo of John William Bills
7 March 2018

We’re loathe to start on a negative note, but the chances of an average individual surviving a plane crash are slim to none. Vesna Vulović was no ordinary woman, however, and she went to her grave some 44 years after she survived the highest fall without a parachute. This is her story.

Inauspicious beginnings

‘She is going to be the only survivor of a major plane crash someday’ isn’t something that people say about their kids, and needless to say the early years of Vesna Vulović were fairly unremarkable. She was a big fan of Western music as a child, taking a particular liking to The Beatles, and she eventually went to live in the UK in order to improve her English. Vesna then moved on to Sweden, but her parents weren’t happy about the globetrotting and soon demanded she return to Yugoslavia.

Holder of a most unusual world record | © WargamingNA/YouTube

Going to work

Vesna Vulović returned to Belgrade and found herself in need of a job. She had spent a few years outside of the country, so finding employment in the socialist society wasn’t the easiest of tasks. Vulović was stubborn to say the least, and she wasn’t out of work for long. A friend of hers worked for JAT, the Yugoslav national airline, and Vesna soon followed suit.

Vulović got a job with the Yugoslav national airline | © WikiMedia Commons

The crash

There is a reason those individuals plying their trade on aeroplanes rarely make the headlines. Vesna Vulović likely would have joined the millions of anonymous stewards and stewardesses of history, were it not for the horrific tragedy of JAT Flight 367, a passenger plane from Stockholm to Belgrade. Some 28 people were on board the January 1972 flight, including crew, and all was going fine until the plane flew over East Germany.

A bomb exploded on board, causing the plane to split in half and violently spin out of control. It quickly spiralled to the ground, crashing into a village in what was then Czechoslovakia. Call it a miracle or call it pure luck, but Vesna Vulović was the only survivor of the crash. How she managed this isn’t entirely clear, but the prevailing theory is that a food cart pinned her to the back of the plane and stopped her getting sucked out, acting like the world’s most efficient seatbelt. Her low blood pressure also caused her to pass out extremely quickly, saving her heart from a terrible explosion.

Her luck didn’t end there. Vulović had fallen 10,160 metres and survived, but she was still lying prone as the only survivor in the twisted wreckage of a commercial airplane. She was eventually found by Bruno Henke, who just so happened to be a former medic in the German Army. Henke was able to care for the ailing Vulović until she could get to a hospital.

The fateful flight started out in Stockholm | © Benoît Derrier / WikiCommons

The aftermath

She didn’t survive unscathed, although that surely goes without saying. Her skull was fractured, both of her legs were broken and three of her vertebrae were completely crushed. Vulović was in a coma for a month, eventually waking and using her first words to ask for a cigarette. God bless the Serbs.

Vulović even went back to work with a desk job at JAT. The dark humour of the Serbs was strong in her, and she often talked of how much she enjoyed films that centred around plane crashes. She was eventually fired in 1990 after being a little too open in her criticism of Slobodan Milošević, which subsequently pushed her into a life of activism.

Vesna Vulović passed away in December 2016, 66 years after she was born and 44 rides around the sun on from her miraculous survival. What caused the crash that made her famous? Some journalists have claimed that the Czechoslovak Air Force shot it down, but the prevailing theory is that the bomb was planted by émigré Croatian terrorists.

Some cynics say that the plane must have crashed from a lower altitude, and that it would be totally impossible for Vesna Vulović to survive a fall of 33,330 feet without a parachute. The good folk at Mythbusters eventually proved that it was possible, inking Vesna’s name into the Guinness Book of Records. Here’s hoping no tragedies cause her name to be replaced.

Vulović lived out her life in Belgrade | © Vladimir Nenezic / Shutterstock