Finding airplane stowaways in the wheel well are actually not as unusual as it may sound. Airplane stowaway passengers are usually desperate people, willing to risk their lives to escape to a better life elsewhere. Most cases of stowaways have originated in developing countries.
My own airplane stowaway experience
I had just taxied my B757 from the terminal at Havana Airport, Cuba (HAV) for take-off on runway 24. This was another charter flight full of relatives of Cubans still on the island, now living in California.
It was evening and it was dark outside. Holding short of the runway, awaiting clearance for takeoff from the Tower we were cleared to line up and wait for takeoff clearance.
Lined up in position for the takeoff roll on the runway my co-pilot suddenly notices something running out from the bushes to the right of the airplane close to the runway. An animal?
Paying closer attention, we notice a human being, a male, sprinting towards the airplane. Next, he tries to climb into the wheel well of the B757, to become a stowaway passenger!
An airplane stowaway aiming for the wheel well!
We immediately notified the tower. Police were on their way.
Next, we noticed the stowaway leaving the wheel well-area, launching back into the bushes.
We informed the tower controller of the new observation as the lights and sirens from the police cars approached our airplane. Observing the stowaway running away from the airplane appearing to run faster than track and field star Usain Bolt, police still caught up with him.
We received a thank you from the tower controller.
Fortunately, my real-life experience witnessing a stowaway attempt on my airplane ended well. However, several passengers sitting on the right side of the airplane had also witnessed the event.
Upon deplaning in Los Angeles several passengers wanted to know if that guy would have survived the flight had we not discovered his stowaway attempt and gotten into the wheel well.
Basically, there are three things that can easily kill someone attempting to catch a ride in an airplane wheel well
1. Gear retraction after take-off
The wheel well area of an airplane has airplane parts and systems packed into a very compact area. When the wheels come up they are compacted into this area as well, then covered by plates shutting off the wheel well area with the gear retracted.
If the airplane stowaway has managed to find a tiny space to hide inside the wheel well, lucky not to get crushed by the retracting gear mechanism, then the next survival question would be the environment.
2. The wheel well environment
An airplane wheel well is not pressurized or temperature-controlled, which is necessary to sustain life.
No pressurization means the airplane stowaway is facing a lack of oxygen. Death from hypoxia (lack of oxygen) is most likely to occur within a few minutes after reaching higher altitudes.
The second environmental issue occurring is temperature. The typical temperature at the altitudes that airliners fly can easily reach around minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit (51 degrees Celcius). The stowaway simply freezes to death in the wheel well.
3. Stowaway falling out of the wheel well at gear extension
The landing gear is extended before landing. When that takes place the stowaway (most likely already dead) can fall out of the airplane, often covered in ice. Here is what happened on a Kenya Airways flight. The body of the stowaway fell into someone’s yard during the airplanes’ approach into London Heathrow Airport.
How often do airplane stowaways attempt to hide in the wheel well?
There are several documented cases of stowaways. Most died. However, some have survived such an ordeal!
For those surviving such a daring attempt, they all avoided getting crushed to death during gear retraction. They also survived the harsh environment, most likely from the body entering a state of hibernation. This, according to many flight surgeons who have commented on stowaway cases. The survivors also avoided falling out of the airplane at gear extension on landing.
Documented stowaway cases
Dr. Stephen Veronneau, M.D. is a US Federal Aviation Administration Flight Surgeon. He has identified 96 people around the world who were airplane wheel well stowaways since 1947.
Of the 96 cases, more than 75% have proved fatal.
Featured image: © CaptainJetson.com