She fell out of the sky from a height of more than 10,000 metres (33,000ft) and lived to tell the tale. By doing so Vesna Vulovic also became a national heroine and earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for surviving the highest fall without a parachute.
But now the story of what happened to the Serbian flight attendant when the plane she was on apparently exploded mid-air 36 years ago, turning her into a cold war-era celebrity, has been challenged by two journalists who claim it was a fabrication by Communist authorities to cover up a mistake.
Peter Hornung and Pavel Theiner, investigative journalists in Prague, claim the Yugoslav plane on which the 22-year old Vulovic was a flight attendant was probably mistaken for an enemy aircraft and shot down by a Mig fighter from the Czechoslovakian air force, causing it to fall and break up at a much lower height than previously believed. Vulovic was the only survivor of the incident on 26 January 1972, in which 27 people died.
Based on secret documents, mainly from the Czech civil aviation authority, unearthed after more than a year of research, Hornung said he did not believe the aircraft was blown up by Croatian nationalists as the Yugoslav government, backed by Czechoslovakian authorities, claimed at the time. "It is extremely probable that the aircraft was shot down by mistake by the Czechoslovak air force, and in order to cover it up the secret police conceived the record plunge," he said.
"The Czechoslovak secret police managed to spread this wild tale throughout the world," he added. "No doubts have ever been expressed regarding the fall. The story was so good and so beautiful that no one thought to ask any questions." The Yugoslav secret police also helped to uphold that version of the story, he said. Black boxes were never found.
According to an official version of events Vulovic had been in the tail section of the plane, even though eye witnesses have repeatedly said they found her in or around the middle, above the wings. She suffered a fractured skull, broken legs, and three broken vertebrae.
The new investigation says villagers from Srbsk? Kamenice, the Czechoslovakian village near the East German border where the Yugoslav Airlines DC9 fell on a wooded and snowy hillside, reported having seen the plane intact but on fire below the clouds before it broke up. That and the small area of crash debris indicated the plane had disintegrated at around 800 metres. A second plane was also spotted.
Hornung, whose investigation was broadcast on German radio at the weekend, said his evidence showed the aircraft got into difficulty and diverted from its course. "It went into a steep descent and found itself over a sensitive military area" ? just two flight minutes from a nuclear weapons storage facility.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his East German counterpart Erich Honecker were reportedly in the air at the time after a conference in Prague, supporting the theory that the DC9 was mistaken for a military threat to them.
Vulovic has no memory of the crash and can only recall boarding the Zagreb-bound flight before it took off in Copenhagen. When interviewed recently she said she would not be disappointed if the world record turned out not to be true.
A spokesman for Guinness World Records told German paper Taz: "It seems that at the time Guinness was duped by this swindle just like the rest of the media."
In Serbia respondents to news websites were attempting to repudiate Hornung's report.
'I have had nine lives'
Vesna Vulovic, below, was on JAT Yugoslav Airlines flight JU 367 only because of a mix-up with another flight attendant with a similar name. She was left temporarily paralyzed by the accident, but regained the use of her legs after surgery and physiotherapy. She took a desk job at JAT, but continued to fly, having no fear of flying - probably a result of the fact that she had no memory of the crash. But she was fired from her job in 1990 after expressing opposition to Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and taking part in rallies against his rule. It is commonly believed that her fame prevented her arrest. In 1985 her plunge earned an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. She received the award from Sir Paul McCartney. Vulovic, 59, lives in Belgrade and is still considered a heroine throughout the former Yugoslavia. She continues to have an active but low-key role in politics, protesting against Serb nationalism. In an interview with the New York Times last summer, she said: "I am like a cat ... I have had nine lives. But if nationalist forces in this country prevail, my heart will burst."