Vesna Vulovic, a flight attendant on a Yugoslav plane that broke apart above northern Bohemia in 1972, holds the world record for surviving the highest fall without a parachute: 10,160 metres. Now, however, that story is being challenged by a German journalist in Prague. He says the official version of what happened was a communist fabrication: Vesna Vulovic fell from a far shorter distance – and the plane may well have been shot down by Czechoslovakia.
In a radio documentary set for broadcast on ARD on Saturday, Peter Hornung-Andersen produces evidence to suggest the “miracle” of the survival of Vesna Vulovic was of a far lesser order than currently believed. The German journalist says she didn’t fall from over 33,000 feet: something had already happened at that altitude to force the plane, flying from Copenhagen to Zagreb on January 26 1972, into a rapid descent. Witnesses say the plane experienced a second event only a few hundred metres above the Czech village of Srbská Kamenice. They saw flames and one heard the sound of a second plane. For this reason, Peter Hornung-Andersen says the official story – that a bomb planted by Croatian ultranationalists went off at 10,000 metres – is a lie. What’s more, the plane may well have been shot down by Czechoslovakia, he says.
“We can prove that the plane broke apart right above Srbská Kamenice, because the area where the debris was spread is much too small for a plane breaking apart at 10,000. If you compare it to Lockerbie, or to Uberlingen, a crash in southern Germany some years ago, the area was much larger.
“Also the bodies of the dead – these were not people who had fallen from a great height. They looked as if they had fallen from a high building, not more.
“Also we have a former investigator from the Yugoslav side. He told us, I was there in 1972, and I can tell you that this plane broke apart at some hundred metres high, not more.”
Why did the Czechoslovak authorities make up the story, as you allege, of the plane being bombed?
“It was easier for them. First it was a fascinating story – they had this woman who survived. And second they had an event they wanted to cover up. Everybody believed it and nobody ever checked this story and investigated if it was really correct, even in the West.”
You say in your radio documentary that is being broadcast tomorrow that the plane may have been shot down by Czechoslovakia. Why would they have done that?
“There were two main reasons. First the plane, which was in an emergency descent, did not have a way of identifying itself. Because just before the event at great altitude there were problems in communication between civilian and military air control, concerning this plane.
“So the military air control in the southern GDR did not exactly know what was coming in that moment. There was the event at great height and then they had no possibility to use their radio communications.
“They flew into an area which was militarily highly sensitive, because there were many Soviet military installations. And, at the same time, high-ranking Warsaw Pact leaders were flying back from Prague to their capitals. Mr Honecker of Germany was flying back to Berlin, Mr Gierek the Pole, was flying to Warsaw. And maybe, we’re not sure of this, Leonid Brezhnev from Moscow was flying in this area.”
How likely do you think it is that the plane actually was shot down by Czechoslovakia?
“I consider it likely, I do. It’s nearly impossible to prove it now. Maybe now somebody from the secret services will go public and tell the truth. What we tell is that the story, that the miracle was invented. We speculate about the reason why they invented it, but there’s still work to do.”