Can you survive hitching a ride in the wheel well of an airplane? It’s a rare event and even rarer if the person attempting it survives. The FAA says that since 1947, there have been around 100 people known to have stowed away in wheel wells of an airplane. Most of them died. But this week a 16-year-old boy survived a five-hour flight from California to Hawaii hidden in the wheel well of a commercial Boeing 767 airplane. Aviation experts are calling it a “miracle”.
Authorities say the boy ran away from home after a fight with his parents, jumped the airport fence, and ran across the tarmac to the first airplane he could find. He climbed onto the wheel of the Boeing 767 and up into the wheel well where he remained for the five-hour plus flight from California to Hawaii. The Maui-bound flight flew as high as 38,000 feet, akin to ascending much higher than Mount Everest. At such an extreme altitude, the boy remained unconscious for the majority of the flight. As the plane descended, he slowly regained consciousness and when the airplane touched down, hopped out of the wheel well looking disoriented and confused as he wandered around the airport grounds.
Experts initially doubted the boy’s story – surviving at an altitude of 38,000 feet should not be possible. But security camera footage corroborates the boy’s story. The Associated Press reported:
“Security footage from the San Jose airport verified that the boy from Santa Clara, Calif., hopped a fence to get to Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45 on Sunday morning. The child had run away from his family after an argument. When the flight landed in Maui, the boy hopped down from the wheel well and started wandering around the airport grounds.”
The boy’s parents were shocked when the police called and informed them that their son was in Hawaii.
“They told me that they were holding my son, I was shocked. I wondered how my son went there. … They tried to explain to me about the stowaway and the plane story. I got confused and asked them to call the San Jose police department which later explained to me how things happened.”
Scientists are unsure how survival at 38,000 feet is possible. At altitudes above 25,000 feet, there is little oxygen and sub-zero freezing temperatures. Oxygen depletion occurs and the person falls unconscious within mere minutes. This of course, preludes falling from the aircraft. In rare cases however, scientists believe the quick drop to 80-degree-below-zero temperatures likely puts the person in a hibernation-like state of suspended animation. The person’s heartbeats and breaths slow and cellular activity in the body comes to a near stop. Heat from the hydraulic lines inside the wheel well provides enough warmth to keep the person from suffering frostbite and dying.
Aviation consultant John Nance told reporters “This is not supposed to happen” and noted, “We’re going to have to rewrite the textbooks.”
The FBI told reporters that the boy will not be charged and has been referred to child protective services.