Nervousness, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking — that’s what about 7 percent of the American population feels before getting on to a plane (according to the National Institute of Mental Health). More than 20 million people struggle with an understandably intense fear of falling 33,000 feet to their doom.
Vesna Vulović faced that very nightmare, and somehow, lived to tell the world about the most terrifying moments of her life. Whether this gal’s got some superhuman powers we can’t confirm or deny, there was one coincidence that helped her do what likely no one else on the planet could.
After Serbian-born Vesna Vulović traveled to London to learn English, she soon found the travel junkie in herself. Inspired by a friend, the 22-year-old dreamed of pursuing a career as a flight attendant. She planned on traveling the world.
Vesna would do anything to make her dream happen, and she did. Worried that she wouldn’t pass the medical exam due to her low blood pressure, Vesna downed several cups of coffee immediately before the exam to raise her blood pressure. It worked.
In 1971, Vesna began working for JAT Airways, Serbia’s (formerly Yugoslavia’s) largest airline. After eight months as an airborne waitress, she was informed that she’d be joining the team of JAT Flight 367, which flew from Stockholm to Belgrade with a stopover in Copenhagen.
Funny enough, the airline confused her with a different woman named Vesna, but she wasn’t about to speak up. She saw the opportunity and nabbed it, as she desperately wanted to visit Denmark. If she could see the future, however, she probably would’ve declined.
After a less-than-exciting trip, Vesna and the crew met Flight 367 at the Copenhagen Airport at 1:30 PM on January 26, 1972, and patiently waited to board. The plane took off at 3:15 PM sharp, changing her life forever. After 46 minutes of smooth sailing, the nightmare began.
At 4:01 PM, an explosion in the baggage compartment (likely a briefcase bomb planted by a Croatian group pursuing independence from Yugoslavia) caused the aircraft to collapse in the air at exactly 33,330 feet high, directly above Srbská Kamenice, Czechoslovakia.
Flight 367 and all 28 passengers on board smashed into the ground. The wreckage was devastating. Anyone surviving the 33,000-foot fall seemed impossible. No one was in the area to help. Well, almost no one.
When Bruno Honke, a man from a small Czechoslovakian village, heard faint screaming coming from a nearby hillside, he rushed to the area, unaware of the horror that would greet him.
He was shocked to witness the sight of airplane ruins, followed by the sight of Vesna, who was begging for help, in a blood-soaked, teal uniform. Since Bruno was a medic during World War II, he could keep her alive until help arrived at the scene.
Medics found her with two broken legs, three broken vertebrae, a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, and a fractured skull, Vesna beat the Guinness World Record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute. Please, don’t attempt to beat her record.
Today I Found Out
Vesna was rushed to a hospital in Prague, where she resided for several days while in a coma. The crash impact was so brutal on Vesna’s body (well, duh) that, aside from said injuries, she also suffered a brain hemorrhage and severe amnesia.
For weeks the entire catastrophe was a blur to Vesna, as it took her nearly a month to remember what had happened. She had memories of greeting passengers boarding her flight and memories of her parents visiting her in the hospital; everything in-between those moments was gone.
It was a miracle Vesna wasn’t paralyzed, let alone dead, and it was even more miraculous that she was walking again just 10 months later. But how? Doctors were shocked.
Funny enough, the first thing Vesna asked for once she awoke was a cigarette. Go figure. But overall, she was pretty healthy, as she connected her short recovery period to “a childhood diet that included chocolate, spinach, and fish oil.” But it had to be about more than that…
Well, air safety investigators suggested that Vesna’s location in the plane at the time of the fall softened the blow of the crash. Vesna was based at the back of the plane with a food cart when the fuselage fell apart.
Laurence King Publishing
Rather than being sucked out of the aircraft, the food cart pinned Vesna to a section of the plane, which gracefully fell over a snowy, dense, wooded hillside, essentially cushioning her fall. That wasn’t all.
Along with those technical speculations, doctors had another, more anatomical, idea about what may have saved Vesna’s life during the crash: her low blood pressure.
That’s right, the very thing that almost stopped Vesna Vulović from accomplishing her dream was likely what stopped her heart from bursting on impact. It was all too coincidental.
Unbelievably, the whole traumatic ordeal didn’t keep Vesna from exploring the rest of the globe, as she continued flying up until her death in 2016. A year later, investigators had their plates full with a similar incident, which had them reopening old files.
In March 2017, authorities dispatched investigators to a remote wooded area just outside of a mining town in Ontario, Canada. There, reports indicated, they would find a downed plane.
Sure enough, investigators spotted a single-engine Cessna 172 like the one below. But this one had torn through the branches of snow-covered evergreens, broken a wing, and crumpled on the forest floor…and some other things were not right about it.
The plane’s cockpit survived wholly undamaged, but there was no sign of a pilot. Nobody lay un-moving in the cockpit; no footsteps in the snow led away from the wreckage. Whoever called in the crash had no relation to the plane. So where was the pilot?
Investigators searched the plane for evidence of his or her whereabouts. But not even the in-flight recording equipment harbored any evidence. At the scene, the investigators could only shrug.
“Certainly, it’s unusual,” said senior investigator Peter Rowntree of Canada’s Transportation Safety Board. “Normally when you go to a crash site, there is someone there.” Soon, authorities heard whispers of a “ghost plane” — a flight without a pilot.
But were Peter and his team truly chasing a ghost? Or were they trying to understand a complicated scene only a missing pilot had the answers to? They started digging into what Peter would eventually call the most intriguing investigation of his 20-year career.
After news of the mysterious crash hit the mainstream, police at the University of Michigan (UM) in the United States contacted the Canadian investigators with information vital to the case. It seemed both were chasing a similar mystery…
UM authorities confirmed the plane did have a pilot, 27-year-old School of Information doctoral candidate and Chinese national, Xin Rong. He had been missing since March 15, the day the plane crashed into that Ontario forest.
As it turned out, Xin, a member of the university’s Flyer’s club and an experienced leisure pilot, rented the plane from Ann Arbor, Michigan. But that was the only detail of the investigation that made sense. Where was Xin? investigators wondered.
Xin left the Ann Arbor airport at 7 pm on the day he was reported missing, heading for the Michigan resort town Harbor Springs. The plane — without Xin — crashed at 11:40 p.m., 400 miles north of that destination.
With this information, Peter and his investigators conducted another sweep of the crash site for Xin. Maybe snow wiped away any trace of the doctoral candidate. Maybe he crawled away, wounded, dying.
The search, though, turned up nothing: Xin was nowhere near the crashed plane. So that left investigators a few options. Either Xin set the plane to autopilot and jumped out of it on the Michigan runway, or he jumped out mid-flight. Were either realistic?
“We believe [the plane] was on autopilot, but we can’t prove it,” Peter reported. And because the 33-year-old plane didn’t have the ability to take off while on autopilot, investigators nixed the first theory. So he jumped…right?
Well, Peter found problems with that theory, too. The plane didn’t have a hatch for the roof. “The only way in or out is through the two main cabin doors,” Peter said. So “when he exited, and how he exited, is still a mystery.” But that theory had another hole.
The plane carried no parachutes. If Xin abandoned ship mid-flight — a strange maneuver in its own right, since the plane didn’t have any mechanical failures — there would’ve been no safe way to reach the ground. Soon, investigators hit a wall.
Xin wasn’t some novice who could “accidentally” overshoot his destination by 400 miles. In fact, on his website, the certified pilot chronicled dozens of sightseeing flights he took friends on. This led to far more sinister theories about his disappearance.
Some speculated he jumped from the plane as a means of suicide. A possibility, of course, but speculation — no tangible evidence supported the theory. And wouldn’t his body have turned up somewhere along the flight path? Still, investigators had no answers.
Seven months after the crash, Xin’s wife Surong Ruan struggled to answer questions from insurance companies about her husband’s coverage, but without an official death, she couldn’t provide satisfactory answers. So she made a painful choice.
She petitioned a county probate judge to declare her missing husband dead, writing: “All the evidence indicates the aircraft was operating normally and crashed because it ran out of fuel…I believe Xin Rong exited the aircraft and didn’t have a chance of being alive.”
In October, the judge granted her request, officially pronouncing Xin Rong dead. But without a body, investigators could never, truly be sure. Maybe someday, we’ll understand what happened to Xin on March 15, 2017.
Stories of mystery have served to captivate the masses for centuries, but that’s usually all they ever are: stories. Yet while most people are content to be mystified by tales that seemingly have no end or explanation, there are plenty of others that believe stories like these are far from over.
On New Year’s Day, 1985, Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 was preparing to depart on an international trip from the waterfront city of Asunción, Paraguay, to sunny Miami, Florida. With scheduled stopovers in Bolivia and Ecuador, the flight was shaping up to be an enjoyable tour of South America.
But because the airport at Asunción didn’t see much regular traffic, Flight 980 was to be flown on a large Boeing 727 airliner, a craft much larger than those that typically transport small numbers of passengers. With legroom to spare, however, the 29 men and women aboard didn’t seem to mind the extra space.
Disciples of Flight
The Houston-based cockpit crew was headed by Captain Larry Campbell, who, along with a cabin crew of five Chilean flight attendants, was confident the journey would go off without a hitch. After all, the passengers they were transporting weren’t just your everyday air travelers.
Though the flight was carrying individuals from Paraguay, the United States, and even South Korea, there was one woman in particular that crew members were made especially aware of: Marian Davis. As the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay, her safety was of the utmost importance.
Marcos Serrou do Amaral / Flickr
At around 7:37 PM, Flight 980 contacted the control tower at Bolivia’s international airport in La Paz and gave the crew the all-clear to land and refuel. But although landing a plane might seem like a simple task for a trained pilot, bringing the craft down at this particular airport wouldn’t be so easy.
Know as “El Alto,” La Paz’s notorious airstrip is the highest international airport in the world, sitting an astonishing 13,327 feet above sea level. Combine that with the jagged, ice-capped mountain peaks that circle the area and “El Alto” is easily one of the most deadly airspaces on the planet.
But Campbell and his crew weren’t phased by the dangers of the treacherous terrain, and moments after radioing the tower the plane, now just 25 miles from the airport and flying at an altitude of 19,600 feet, began its descent.
Unfortunately, Flight 980 never arrived. Traveling at 500 mph, the plane crashed into the side of Mount Illimani, scattering itself over the rocks and icy crags of the mountain. No sooner did Flight 980 go down that the control tower at “El Alto” called in their Air Force.
Even with years of advanced training under their belts, the Air Force unit was hindered by inclement weather and altitude sickness, making the recovery effort that the more difficult. After several days and little progress made, the search was called off. There were no survivors.
The reason for the plane’s demise was also considered an unknown, as neither of the two black boxes containing the flight recorders were recovered. Over the years, efforts have been made to locate the flight records of Flight 980, but all have come empty-handed — that is, until now.
More than three decades after the crash, a pair of Boston hikers named Dan Futrell and Isaac Stoner came across a Wikipedia article listing all of the unrecovered flight records from crashed airplanes, including Flight 980. After mulling it over, the two men took on the mission themselves.
It took several months for Futrell and Stoner to train for the expedition until finally, in the spring of 2016, the two hikers touched down on the tarmac of “El Alto.” Dubbing their mission “Operation Thonapa” after the Incan god of wisdom, the Bostonians were hoping for a little extra luck on their side.
Unlike the other recovery teams, Furtrell and Stoner avoided the crash site in favor of searching the areas below. Given how fast the plane was traveling, there was a very good possibility that debris – and hopefully the flight recorders – had been scattered further down the mountain.
By that logic, the men focused their efforts on exploring a stretch of terrain a good 3,000 feet below the wreckage. And no sooner did they begin combing the area that one of the hikers made an impossible discovery…
It was a black box! Furtrell and Stoner also discovered a roll of magnetic tape that they believed to be the flight records. But unfortunately, both the black box and the tapes had sustained heavy damage; if the recordings were unreadable, then the truth behind the crash of Flight 980 would be lost forever.
shreddor / Reddit
As the hikers continued to explore the wreckage, they tried to compare the clues they found with some of the theories about the crash. One theory was that the control tower crew misdirected the flight as the result of a post-New Years Eve hangover, while another suggested something far more sinister…
Eastern Air Lines was no stranger to criminal investigations. This theory – that the plane’s crashing had been a result of its involvement in some illicit activity – seemed too farfetched to the hikers to be true… until they found the suitcases.
Inside, Futrell and Stoner were shocked to find dozens of poached crocodile skins worth millions and one piece of luggage even held $2 million! They later learned that the goods and the money belonged to Enrique Matalón Sr., a mafia boss and drug lord on Flight 980 with his wife and children.
The men were convinced that Matalón Sr. had something to do with the crash, but there was only one way to know: the black box. But when they presented their findings to the National Transportation Safety Board, they were heartbroken to learn the truth…
To the dismay of the two hikers, the “black box” that they’d found was simply the rack that had fixed it onto the plane. What’s more, the rolls of magnetic tape were not flight records but instead a Spanish-dubbed reel of an episode of the 1965 television series I Spy.
Despite over 30 years of tireless efforts, the fate of Eastern Air Lines Flight 980 is still a mystery. Whether it is one to be solved remains to be seen, but thanks to Dan Futrell and Isaac Stoner the newfound interest in cracking this decades-old case will hopefully one day return some answers.