The corpse of a man has been discovered on the roof of an office building and police suspect he may have plunged from a passenger aircraft passing overhead.
Police strongly suspect the body found on a rooftop in Richmond, a leafy outer suburb of London, is that of a stowaway who had been hiding in the wheel well of British Airways flight 54, flying in from Johannesburg.
Main reason for the suspicion: another man was found in the jet’s landing gear after it landed. Incredibly, the second man was still alive, but unconscious and in a critical condition.
Airline tracking website FlightAware.com lists British Airways flight 54 as a B747 which departed Johannesburg on Thursday night and arrived at Heathrow on Friday morning. The distance by air is slightly over 9000 km.
Britain’s Metropolitan Police have launched an investigation and are working with authorities in both countries to find more details.
While stowing away in a wheel well (sometimes called the landing gear bay) usually ends tragically for those who try it, it also has major security implications. If a stowaway can reach an aircraft undetected, why not a terrorist?
A ground operations coordinator at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport told CNN that climbing into a wheel well is not difficult; “you just grab onto the struts and landing gear assembly kind of like a ladder and you just jump on the tyre and climb into the wheel well.”
In April this year, an Indonesian man survived a one-hour flight in the wheel well of a Garuda Indonesia passenger aircraft.
Mario Steven Ambarita, 21, stowed away by sitting on one of the retracted wheels of the jet which flew from Pekan Baru in Sumatra to Jakarta. The young man was dazed and staggering when he crawled out of the landing-gear bay at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport.
Longer flights are usually lethal; the bitter cold causes fatal brain damage or the stowaway dies of hypothermia – extreme cold.
Other stowaways fall from their precarious perches, are crushed by landing gear, or succumb to lack of oxygen. Planes fly at altitudes far higher than the heights at which mountaineers don oxygen masks.
A 15-year-old boy survived a five-and-a-half-hour flight from the US mainland to Hawaii last year, sitting in the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines B767. He arrived in good health, to the amazement of airport staff.
Written by Peter Needham