A California teenager managed to stow away for 5 hours in the wheel-well of a Hawaiian Airlines flight from San Jose to Honolulu, and lived to tell about it.
The boy, who was reportedly “unconscious for most of the flight,” was lucky to have survived. More than three quarters of known stowaways who have hid in plane wheel-wells have died, according to USA Today.
Fortunately, such occurrences are exceedingly rare. The Federal Aviation Administration has documented only 105 incidents, including this one, since 1947, USA Today reports.
There are numerous reasons why it’s incredibly dangerous to hitch a ride in the wheel-well of a plane.
When an airliner takes off, its cabin and cargo compartments are pressurised and climate-controlled to mimic the oxygen content and air pressure at a very breathable 6,000-8,000 feet above sea level. But the plane’s undercarriage is not connected to those systems.
As the aircraft climbs, the temperature outside drops to -63 degrees Fahrenheit at 34,000 feet, and plummets to -81 degrees Fahrenheit at 39,000 feet, according to an FAA study. To put that into perspective, the stowaway on the Hawaiian Airlines flight endured the equivalent of five hours outdoors at the South Pole wearing normal street clothes.
But freezing temperatures are not the only danger for stowaways. According to the FAA report, the air at a jetliner’s cruising altitude does not contain enough oxygen to support brain consciousness, causing a condition known as Hypoxia.
“Being in a wheel-well is like all of the sudden being on top of Mount Everest,” aviation expert Jeff Wise told CNN. Between oxygen depletion and the cold, “life expectancy is measured in minutes,” Wise said.
Above 20,000 feet, wheel-well stowaways are also at risk for nitrogen gas embolism and decompression sickness (DCS). DCS, also known as “the bends,” is most commonly seen in scuba divers and occurs when air bubbles build up in body tissues when there is a sudden lack of ambient pressure.
Then, of course, there’s always the danger of being crushed by the retracting landing gear, or falling out of the wheel-well.
Here are a lucky few stowaways who survived after flying in a plane’s wheel-well:
- In August 2013, a teenage boy in Nigeria survived a 35-minute long flight inside a wheel-well. The aircraft did not fly above 25,000 feet.
- In 2010, according to the BBC, a 20-year-old Romanian man survived a 2-hour long flight from Vienna to London Heathrow. Again, the plane did not climb above 25,000 ft.
- In 2000, a man made it through a 7.5-hour flight from Tahiti to Los Angeles.
- In June 1993, a 13-year-old boy stowed away onboard a 4-hour flight from Bogota, Colombia to Miami. The flight reached altitudes as high as 35,000 feet.
- In November 1986, a 35-year-old man stowed away in the wheel-well of a flight from Panama to Miami. Extraordinarily, the man survived the 3-hour flight at altitudes as high as 39,000 feet.
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