Vesna Vulovic JAT Aircraft split image

On the 26th of January 1972, Vesna Vulović was a flight attendant onboard JAT Yugoslav Airlines Flight 367.

The flight path, between Stockholm in Sweden and Belgrade in Serbia, took the aircraft over Czechoslovakia - now the Czech Republic - and that is where the plane exploded into three pieces.

The explosion and crash killed everyone on board. Everyone except Vesna, who survived a fall of 33,333 feet (10,160 metres; 6.31 miles).

50 years on, this remains the highest fall survived without a parachute ever.

JAT Flight 367 had two scheduled stopovers in between Stockholm and Belgrade. First was Copenhagen in Denmark, which is where the secondary cabin crew - including Vesna - boarded the plane. They never reached the second stopover in Zagreb, Croatia.

As fate would have it, Vesna was not actually scheduled to be working on Flight 367, as she revealed in a 2002 interview with Green Light. However, the airline had confused her for another stewardess with the same first name, thus the plane departed Denmark with 23-year-old Vesna Vulović on board.

Vesna Vulović (1972)

At 4:01 p.m., 46 minutes after take off, an explosion in the luggage compartment tore the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 aircraft into three pieces.

As the cabin depressurized, the passengers and other flight crew were believed to have been sucked out of the plane into freezing temperatures, falling to their deaths.

Vesna’s miraculous survival was attributed to her being pinned down by a food cart in the tail end of the fuselage (the aircraft’s main body). 

A JAT McDonnell Douglas DC-9 similar to the one involved

The fuselage separated from the rest of the plane and hurtled towards the ground in a heavily wooded area near the Czechoslovak village of Srbská Kamenice. It crash landed in the thick snow at a favourable angle, which is most likely what saved Vesna’s life.

Additionally, Vesna’s physicians determined that her low blood pressure caused her to quickly pass out when the cabin depressurized, which prevented her heart from bursting upon impact.

Vesna was found screaming inside the wreckage by Bruno Honke, a local villager and former World War 2 medic who was able to administer vital first aid before rescuers arrived.

Although Vesna survived, she sustained extremely serious injuries and spent the following days in a coma. She suffered a fractured skull, two broken legs, three broken vertebrae, a fractured pelvis, several broken ribs and temporary paralysis below the waist.

Amazingly, Vesna was able to walk again after ten months, albeit with a permanent limp due to the twisting of her spine.

She had no memory of the crash or of anything from the following month.

In her home country of Yugoslavia, Vesna Vulović became a national icon, honoured by the President of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. A song was even written about her, titled "Vesna stjuardesa" ("Vesna the Stewardess"), by Serbian-folk-singer Miroslav Ilić.

As part of the Guinness World Records Hall of Fame ceremony in 1985, Paul McCartney presented Vesna with a certificate and medal for achieving the highest fall survived without a parachute. Vesna and her friends grew up in Yugoslavia listening to The Beatles so this was an extra special moment for her.

Paul McCartney presents Vesna Vulović with her certificate and medal at the 1985 Guinness World Records Hall of Fame ceremony

What caused the explosion on JAT Flight 367?

According to the Czechoslovak Civil Aviation Authority, the explosion was caused by a briefcase bomb placed in the aircraft’s baggage compartment.

On the same day as the tragedy of Flight 367, another bomb was set off on a train between Vienna and Zagreb, injuring six people.

The day after these events, Swedish newspaper Kvällsposten received a phone call from a self-described Croatian nationalist, who took credit for bringing down Flight 367.

Though no arrests were ever made, Yugoslav authorities suspected that a Croatian ultranationalist terrorist group, the Ustashe, were behind both bombings.

In total, 128 terror attacks were carried out by Croatian nationalists against Yugoslavia between 1962 and 1982.

Vesna Vulović (2008)

The cause of Flight 367’s explosion and subsequent crash has been subject to several conspiracy theories over the years, the most popular of which suggested that the plane was mistakenly shot down by Czechoslovak anti-air missiles at a much lower altitude of 800 metres (2,600 ft). 

However, this claim was debunked by flight data obtained from the aircraft’s black boxes, which provided exact data regarding the plane’s altitude, acceleration, direction and speed at the time of the explosion.

Both boxes were analyzed by specialists from Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Netherlands, who confirmed that the plane had truly fallen from the stated height of 33,333 ft (10,160 m).

The theory has also been dismissed by the Civilian Aviation Authority and Czech army experts. No sufficient evidence against the official crash report exists for Vesna's record to be disqualified.

After recovering from her injuries, Vesna continued working for JAT Airlines in a desk-based role, but she was fired in the early 1990s for participating in anti-government protests opposing Slobodan Milošević, president of Serbia within Yugoslavia at the time. Milošević was later tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity.

"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."

Although she passed away in December 2016 at the age of 66, Vesna Vulović will live on forever as an anti-nationalist heroine.

As her death-defying tale continues to fascinate people around the world, she will also live on as a symbol of survival against all odds.

Although we always love to see records being broken, this one is an exception and we hope no one ever experiences a fall like Vesna's again.