Stowaway Survives flight to Hawaii in Landing Gear Bay

Landing gear well of a 747.      Photo by the author.

Landing gear well of a 747.     Photo by the author.

April 23, 2014

HOW DID HE DO IT? How did a teenage stowaway survive for more than five hours in the landing gear bay of a Boeing 767?

Search me. If you’ve ever snooped around the nether regions of a widebody plane, you’ve seen just how spacious the gear bays are, and how deceptively “roomy” they would appear. But they are full of moving parts and extremely dangerous machinery, and are neither heated nor pressurized. Oxygen will begin to dwindle within minutes of takeoff, with sub-zero temperatures. To that you can add total darkness, deafening noise, and the very good chance of being crushed to death by the struts, doors, and retraction mechanisms of the undercarriage. It’s worse, even, than Ryanair.

Except, last Sunday, a fifteen year-old California boy managed to make it alive from San Jose to Maui in the main gear bay of a Hawaiian Airlines 767. Though reportedly unconscious for most of the trip, the teen awoke after landing more or less uninjured. He was spotted by airline personnel at the Maui airport after crawling down from the plane and walking across the tarmac.

People have been hitching rides in this manner for decades. Usually it’s a somebody in a developing country hoping to reach Europe or the United States. Some years ago, flights arriving in the U.S. from Haiti were common targets. What makes this incident so unusual is that it involved an American citizen on a domestic flight — and, of course, that he lived to tell about it.

Medical experts have mentioned the ability for some people to enter a sort of semi-hibernation state under certain low-temperature conditions, in which metabolism all but ceases and the need for oxygen diminishes. This is maybe the best guess as to how he stayed alive. Perhaps, in addition, the 767’s gear compartment receives residual heat from the bleed lines that pass nearby, or from the pressurized lower fuselage? He’d have needed at least some help; the outside air temperature at 35,000 feet is around sixty degrees below zero.

Or would he? Here’s how one person explained it to me…

“If you’re at 35,000 feet and and not in contact with the slipstream, the convection-rate in minus-sixty or so degree air is probably very survivable with some warm clothing. It’s like when I go to skiing in Colorado: so long as there is no wind, I can be outside in the sun, when the temp is 25 degrees, dressed in only a t-shirt. Additionally, the heat of the aircraft might radiate to some extent into the gear well. That, plus the ram-rise convection through the fuselage [warming caused by air friction] could push the temperature up significantly. As for the oxygen, that’s more of a mystery, but then again people have made it to the top of Everest without supplemental oxygen.”

The teen told authorities he was running away after an argument with his parents. That’s better than shooting up a school, I suppose, though I strongly advise any would-be copycats to rethink their plans. This was not the first time a person survived a flight in a wheel well, but the majority of undercarriage stowaways are killed.

One of the most astonishing photographs in the history of commercial aviation, taken in the early 1970s, shows a young boy falling from the wheel well of a Japan Air Lines DC-8 after takeoff from Sydney, Australia. Fourteen year-old Keith Sapsford had sneaked aboard with dreams of reaching Japan. As the landing gear retracted, he either slipped, jumped from fright, or became dislodged by a piece of moving equipment, plummeting to his death. The picture was taken by John Gilpin, an amateur photographer who was trying out a new camera lens. He had no idea that he’d captured the image until developing his film later on.

JAL Stowaway

I’ve seen my share of DC-8 landing gear bays, having been a flight engineer on a DC-8 freighter for four years. They always gave me the willies. There’s a funny(?) segment in chapter five of my book where I describe pre-flighting a DC-8, and the sobering effects of looking up into the bays at all of that hulking machinery.

Meanwhile, the stowaway theme is something we could (but won’t) riff on for many pages. There’s Frank Abagnale, of course, the notorious imposter of “Catch Me if You Can” fame who conned his way into cockpits with a forged pilot’s license. Or the case of William Cohn, a shopowner from Miami who traveled the world for free by posing as a Pan Am flight attendant in the early 1980s. The ruse was uncovered after passengers and fellow employees had written several letters of commendation on Cohn’s behalf.

The closest I ever came to stowing away was in 1979. A friend and I — we were in seventh grade — skipped school and flew from Boston to New York, to spend the day plane-spotting on the roof of the Pan Am terminal at JFK. We’d take the Eastern Shuttle to La Guardia, then ride the old Carey bus over to Kennedy. We didn’t tell our parents.

A flight attendant must have alerted somebody, because as soon as we landed at La Guardia, an Eastern agent and a police officer pulled aside and took us to an office. Here were two unaccompanied minors flying without anybody’s knowledge or permission. Were we runaways, they wanted to know?

No, just airplane geeks, we explained. We told them truth: that we’d planned to spend the afternoon at JFK taking pictures of planes, and would fly back to Boston again on the 6 p.m. Shuttle.

And that’s exactly what we did. The agent and the cop took us on our word, and let us go.

It was a warm, hazy day in June, I remember. That was the first time I ever saw the Concorde. I remember an Iran Air 747, a British Airways VC-10, and dozens of smokey old 707s and DC-8s. All of this from the rooftop parking lot of the Pan Am Worldport, a.k.a. terminal 3, which remained standing until just this year.
Portions of this story appeared originally in the magazine Salon.

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25 Responses to “Stowaway Survives flight to Hawaii in Landing Gear Bay”
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  1. Felipe says:

    I have three things I want to say. Number one: When you said you skipped school to go plane spotting in New York, did you leave during school or did you sneak out of the house? Number two: Generally, if you are absent, the administrator calls your parents. So wouldn’t your parents know you were gone? Number three: It is just unbelievable that you could get away with this. Going to New York for an entire day just to do plane spotting. I can’t believe this!

  2. jose f. esber says:

    what if the one who sneaked into landing gear bay happens to be a terrorist?

    • Colin says:

      it’s such a crazy story.I think no one can be brave enough to do it even if ti is a terrorist.

  3. Zach says:

    Really nice write-up; one of your better ones. Although it’s hard to beat the exploding commode in the Caribbean.

    Saw this story today, about the cracked windshield.

    Care to comment…what’s the standard procedure here…masks on, then divert? Do you program the diversion into autopilot, just in case…?

  4. David W says:

    I can’t speak to the 767, but the 707 controls pressurization of the passenger area through outflow valves that vent into the wheel wells. If the landing gear doors provided a sufficient seal, the air coming out of the outflow valves may have provided enough pressure and warmth to keep a stowaway alive at high altitudes.

    As for his condition, I’d imagine he’s going to suffer considerable hearing loss from the experience.

  5. nicholas robinson says:

    What a truly ghastly way to go. Imagine for a minute the aloneness of your having been able to sneak over to the plane in the first place. If you even had the faintest knowledge of planes and how they operate this would be your LAST choice of stowing away — no wonder ignorant teenagers or unschooled working types try this horrific method of suicide.

    First of all, you would have no idea of what the wheels of any given plane are going to do when they retract — the bay looks wide open now, but where on god’s earth do you put yourself so you won’t get pressed into Spam the moment the pilot says “Gear up! Three green.”

    Of course, you would never be there if you’re even thinking about this possibility. No doubt you’re thinking “Plane: people travel on them all the time. This place will bring me up to the cargo place where I will be safe.” or some horrible fantasy like that.

    So, you, probably from a warm country and maximally dressed in a windbreaker — if you had any inkling what conditions in there were going to be like, ten North Face -30° rated parkas wouldn’t be enough and you’d be well aware of that — you climb into the wheel well. Like Patrick says, it’s probably a vast (in a 747, maybe 8 feet by 8 feet cavity? No idea) jumble of wires, piston-looking things, struts, all sorts of things dangling or whatnot — and then you’d have to decide where to cram yourself.

    If you were a gangly 16-year old, you’d probably cram yourself into any shelf-type space where you could actually remain as the plane started taxiing. This would take some rearranging, as the movement of the plane would have you slipping almost out, then scrambling back in, maybe trying to wrap a bundle of wires around you.

    On a 747, the noise would be so loud you would by necessity have to put your hands over your ears. On the takeoff run, watching the pavement below go by faster and faster would be a living nightmare — the realization that you could NEVER back out now. And then the liftoff. Engines still screaming at full power, air smashing into the cavity at 150 mph, and then, the inexorable retracting of the gear.

    You’d still be wide awake at this point, so terrified that you’d nearly be frozen in place — except at this point you wouldn’t yet literally be frozen in place — and as struts, wires, metal parts and pistons began to shut the wheel well and those vast, hanging four monstrous tires, still spinning madly and hot as fuck began to insert themselves into where you were, you’d have to scramble to try to somehow fit in among all the machinery.

    If you survived this, now everything would be in semi-twilight, the only light being that which was able to make it through the thin cracks of the massive panels covering the wheel assembly.

    The sound would be horrendous — now the rushing air blasting past the wing and the engines screaming at full throttle — you would be mere feet from one of the inboard engines — and if you were still conscious you would very quickly start to get cold as the 747 climbed through 10,000 feet.

    You’d now be going 300 knots and the wind outside would be dropping by about one degree per ten feet. The oxygen levels would rapidly be depleting, so your ears would be going through agony as the air pressure diminished.

    Probably, after about ten minutes, when the plane was at 15,000-plus feet, the hypoxia would have rendered you mercifully unconscious.

    And then you would know nothing, probably ever again. Because if your 747 was going on a multi-hour flight, you would be frozen almost solid as the plane came in to land, and would most likely drop from the wheel well the moment the gear went down, at 5,000 feet or so. A frozen, human block of ice, no doubt long expired.

    If, somehow, you managed to survive this whole ordeal . . . well, you would have enough nightmares to last a dozen lifetimes.

  6. John B. says:

    I’m not entirely sure what “ram-rise convection” means, but I’m guessing that frictional heating of air against the fuselage raises temperatures well above outside ambient, and that this heat affects the interior of the airplane. True?

  7. William Fritz says:

    And what about the spinning tires/wheels? Maybe I’m wrong but I imagine those wheels might still be spinning rather fast as they enter the wells. Being pushed against one would be–shall we say–unpleasant.

  8. Dick Waitt says:

    Wheel wells may be big, but so are landing gear assemblies. Without revealing details, are there locations in some aircraft types that could provide a suitable place where a “passenger” might locate himself so that he would be clear of the gear coming up and be relatively secure if he happened to be unconscious and not aware of the gear door opening and the wheel going down? That would infer some sort of platform, a cable tray or something similar, on which a “passenger” might rest without having to hang on for dear life for the entire trip?

    On the same lines, are there sensors in the cockpit that would warn the crew if such a person were to be crushed by the retracting gear?

    Remember, this is assuming a “passenger” whose knowledge of the aircraft is relatively little; he sees a convenient airplane, gets to it, and climbs in. What does he do then?

  9. Jon says:

    DC-8 landing gear bays creep me out, too, not because of stowaways, but because of Nationair/Nigeria Airways 2120. Flaming bodies falling out of the plane… *shudder*

    Of all the episodes of Mayday I’ve watched, that one is the most chilling.

  10. UncleStu says:

    “people to enter a sort of semi-hibernation state under certain low-temperature conditions, in which metabolism all but ceases and the need for oxygen diminishes.”

    I think the airlines will pick up on this and create a new lower cost class of service. Think of the possibiilties for lowering costs.
    No seats and fancy lighting needed – just stack them up in the hold.
    You could cram more passengers on board.
    No food service needed, and no cabin crew needed to serve them their, oh so important. snacks.
    No need for the “bye bye” with the phony smiles when they deplane – after landing just set them on the tarmac and let them thaw out.
    Thrifty passengers will be glad to save the money and, since they were unconscious the whole trip, they wouldn’t remember any of the bad stuff.

    I’m sure y’all have more ideas.

  11. Ramapriya says:

    1. There’s something amiss about the ‘argument with his parents’ report because his mom in Somalia has said that it was the first time in 6 years that she got to know of the bloke’s whereabouts and that he indeed was alive.

    2. Did you mean to write “He had no idea that he’d captured the imagine until developing his film later on”? Doesn’t read correctly somehow.

    3. I’d desist writing, “It’s worse, even, than Ryanair” if I were you. Those coves have a history of sending legal notices and suchlike to sites where such comments are found, even when made by readers.

    • MWnyc says:

      I’m sure Patrick meant to type “capture the image” – and that either spell-check, auto-complete, or muscle memory in Patrick’s fingers turned it into “imagine”.

  12. Tanzer von Smekelsburg says:

    Just for the sake of speculation….
    Perhaps the kid performed some favor for a ground crew member and was stashed in the back of the cargo hold in a massive canvas duffel, then crawled out.

    • Patrick says:

      But…. the cargo holds are part of the pressurized fuselage. The gear bays are not. There’s no structural transfer between them. Can’t do it.

  13. […] Ask the Pilot looks at how a 15 year-old may have survived a flight to Hawaii in the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines 767. Plus, remembering John Gilpin's chilling photo of a young boy falling to his death from a JAL DC-8. […]

  14. fiona says:

    ah! how awesome that you once got away with it yourself. funn. good thing you were INSIDE the plane when you did it 🙂

    I’d read the boy didn’t wake up after landing for an hour, then woke up and crawled out of plane. Kinda like he had to defrost first — is how I imagined it.

    I am so fascinated — if there’s some major scientific information here — I mean the kid is not even injured. I wonder if somehow the specific combination of elements — slowed body functions along with reduced temp/ pressure changes are what allowed him to survive without oxygen – or with extremely little.

    crazy, thanks for posting story & pic.

    • MWnyc says:

      I think it was less that the kid had to defrost than that he had to re-oxygenate his brain.

      I can’t help but wonder if wheel-well stowaways who survive the trip suffer some oxygen-deprivation brain damage that doesn’t manifest itself until much later.

  15. Reader says:

    Incidences of people sneaking onto planes aren’t as uncommon as you might think. Since 1996, there have been 105 stowaways on 94 flights worldwide, according to the Federal Aviation Administration in an e-mail to USA TODAY Network.

    More than 76% of those attempts resulted in deaths, the FAA says.

    The FAA’s numbers reflect stowaways in the wheel wells, nose wells and other unpressurized areas. The statistics don’t include people who sneak into the cargo compartment or passenger area.

    Source: FAA: Most plane stowaways in wheel well die, by Jolie Lee, USA TODAY Network, April 21, 2014.

    * * *

    So, 76 percent = 80 died and 25 survived (approximately)

    If a stowaway can get in there, what else can get in there? To be honest with you, stowaways are the least of my concerns.

    This breach tells me that post-911 security can be defeated. I doubt many airports around the world will do much to address it. I realize you can’t plug every hole, but this hole appears to be a big gaping one that millions know about.

    • Rod says:

      Where landing-gear wells are concerned, I’m amazed the death rate — rather than (supposedly) 76% — isn’t 99.999999976%.

      Then there are those who fell out — maybe alive, probably dead — when the gear was lowered. Maybe their bodies were recovered, maybe not. Maybe the circs were understood if they were found, probably not.

      So they probably didn’t find their way into these statistics. Which — if you believe them — almost restore your faith in jumping onto those struts for that Trip to Freedom.

    • Patrick says:

      Of course post 9/11 security can be defeated. Pretty much ANY security can be defeated. It irks me that this has become a discussion about security. As if turning airports into fortresses would be the smart thing to do.

      Meanwhile I’m very surprised by that 76 percent fatality figure for stowaways. There has to be more to that statistic (aircraft type, altitude flown, etc.) — I can’t believe such a high percentage of people would survive.

      • Simon says:

        I agree this shouldn’t be about security.

        But it does raise the question why millions of flying passengers are harassed at airports and forced to undergo time consuming nonsense procedures, when it’s been demonstrated just how easy all of these measures can be circumvented by hopping the airfield fence.

        Here’s a suggestion. The TSA should knock off all the body scanning BS and the 3.4 oz kabuki until they have fixed all the holes in the fences. Once they have a grip on the fence hoping we’ll see if we want to allow them back into the screening areas.