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Amazing and deadly stories of airline stowaways

April 24, 2014 Aviation, Headline News No Comments Email Email

The astoegtmedia59nishing story of a 15-year-old boy who survived a flight from the US mainland to Hawaii last week, sitting in the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines B767 on Easter Day, has focussed attention on the very dangerous business of stowing away on aircraft.

The trans-Pacific flight to Hawaii on which the boy stowed away took five and a half hours. Lack of oxygen and sub-zero temperatures almost always kill such stowaways.

The temperature at the plane’s cruising altitude of 38,000 feet could have dropped to 50 degrees below zero or less. That height is 11.5 kilometres high in the sky. To put it in perspective, Mt Everest is far lower. The world’s highest mountain is 8.8 kilometres high, and climbers wear oxygen masks to reach the summit. There is little oxygen atop Mt Everest, let alone at more than 2 kilometres higher, the altitude at which the boy flew. Cordato

FBI spokesman Tom Simon said the boy apparently had been unconscious for the “lion’s share of the flight.” See Stowaway, 15, survives five-hour flight on plane’s wheel

Such ordeals usually end in death, with stowaways falling, being crushed by landing gear, or succumbing to freezing cold and lack of oxygen. Then again, US Federal Aviation Administration records show that of 105 people who stowed away on flights around the world over the past 67 years, 25 lived through the ordeal. That’s a survival rate of 23.8%, though most of those made far shorter flights than the 15-year-old boy.

An incident with a less happy outcome occurred in 2012, when security agents working for Airports Company South Africa, which runs Cape Town international airport, spotted a man scaling its perimeter fence and sprinting towards a British Airways plane preparing for take off for London.

Officers searched the airfield in vain and the plane took off. On landing, a corpse (presumably the same man) was found in the wheel well.

Such events always focus attention on airport security, because who knows the motives of someone who reaches a plane and hides in it? No matter how hard airlines and airports try, however, a few desperate or obsessed people manage to sneak aboard planes. Unlike stowing away on a ship, it’s harder to get aboard a plane, so they choose the wheel well.

Four years ago, a 20-year-old Romanian man  survived the far shorter flight from Vienna to Heathrow while curled up clinging to the retracted undercarriage. He was incredibly lucky because the plane flew much lower than normal to avoid bad weather and the flight lasted just 97 minutes. Even so, temperatures dived below minus 40C. The weird aspect of that case was that the Romanian had no idea where the plane was headed and besides, he could have entered Britain legally with far less hassle as Romania is in the European Union.

A 1993 paper by the US Federal Aviation Administration Office of Aviation Medicine suggested that some lose so much body heat that they enter a sort of hibernation, thus preventing the lack of oxygen damaging their brain and other organs.

In 2010, the body of a 16-year-old American boy was found in a suburban Boston neighbourhood and he was suspected to have been murdered. An investigation, however, found he had managed to evade airport security at his hometown airport, Charlotte Douglas International, and climb into the wheel well of a Boeing 737 heading for Boston.

In other countries, corpses have been found in fields (and in one case in a garden) after tumbling from aircraft. In October 1996, the body of a 19-year-old Indian man fell over 600 metres from a jet approaching Heathrow after a 10-hour flight from Delhi. He was already dead when he fell, a post-mortem revealed. His brother was with him in the wheel well and survived.

In February 2010, a man’s frozen body was found inside the landing gear compartment of a Delta Air Lines plane in Tokyo. And in July 2009, another body was discovered in the undercarriage of a jet travelling from Ghana to Britain.

Only men (usually young) try such lethal stunts. Most of them are poor and trying to get to Europe or the USA.

Another desperate way of getting around the world free involves hiding in cargo. In 2000, Roberto Viza Egues hid himself in an Air France cargo container in Havana, Cuba and arrived in Paris, France next day in reasonably good condition. It didn’t do him much good – France deported him back to Cuba. Other people who have tried that method have died, unnoticed, inside crates stored in Customs sheds.

Written by : Peter Needham

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