As miraculous as it was that a 16-year-old California boy was able to hitch a ride from San Jose to Hawaii and survive, it isn't the first time a wheel-well stowaway has lived to tell about it.
The FAA says that since 1947 there have been 105 people who have tried to surreptitiously travel in plane landing gear world-wide on 94 flights — with a survival rate of about 25 percent.
Luck, coupled with the will to survive, is likely the biggest factor in the successes.
Four years ago, a Romanian man flew from Vienna to London inside the landing gear of a Boeing 747. It's believed that he made it because bad weather kept the plane from soaring above 25,000 feet, keeping temperatures from plunging to fatally cold levels.
In 2002, a Cuban refugee flew to Montreal in the wheel well of a DC-10. He was reportedly kept alive by a broken compartment pipe that was not only leaking warm air but provided him a hand-hold when the landing gear deployed.
Save for the occasional happy ending, however, hiding in the landing gear of a aircraft as it soars miles above the Earth is generally a losing proposition.
“You’re dealing with an incredibly harsh environment,” aviation and security expert Anthony Roman, told NBC News on Monday. “Temperatures can reach -50 F, and oxygen levels there are barely sustainable for life.”
That’s because when someone stows away in an aircraft wheel well, they don’t have the luxuries of a pressurized cabin or heat.
According to an FAA/Wright State University study titled “Survival at High Altitudes: Wheel-Well Passengers,” at 20,000 feet the temperature experienced by a stowaway would be -13 F, at 30,000 it would be -45 in the wheel well — and at 40,000 feet, the mercury plunges to a deadly -85 F.
At that altitude the air pressure is about one fifth of what it is at sea level.
But if a strong-bodied individual is lucky enough to stand the cold and the lack of oxygen, there’s still the issue of falling out of the plane.
“It’s almost impossible not to get thrown out when the gear opens,” said Roman.
The study also points out “It’s also likely that various unsuccessful attempts were never documented (or known), the bodies falling into an ocean, or into a remote land area.”
Indeed, several bodies have been found around airports over the years that have been suspected to be wheel-well stowaways. It’s also remotely possible that some successful attempts were made where the stowaway was able to flee before being noticed, the study noted.
Most stowaways who have survived generally report not remembering much of the trip, indicating that one reason they are able make it is because their bodies actually are so cold they enter a form of unconscious hibernation.
“It’s similar to a young kid who falls to the bottom of an icy lake, and two hours later he survives, because he was so cold,” said Roman.
The FAA study notes, “If the individual is so fortunate enough as to avoid brain damage or death from the hypoxia and hypothermia, cardiac arrest or failure on rewarming, or several neurovascular decompression sickness complications, some progressive recovery of consciousness occurs … (but) survival is jeopardized if the recovering stowaway begins moving around and falls out when the landing gear gets lowered.”
Aviation expert Roman, a licensed pilot himself, remarked that one of the most alarming things about the stowaway stories is what it shows about airport security.
“Security at major airports is ridiculously inadequate — it’s been dubbed as ‘security theater,’” he said.”
In 2012, the FAA estimated that there had been 96 individuals who tried to travel in plane wheel wells since 1947, with a survival rate of about 25 percent.
Here are some notable cases of stowaways, both successful and fatal:
1947: A 30-year-old man sneaked into a KLM DC-3’s wheel well and flew from Lisbon, Portugal, to Natal Brazil and survived. A DC-3 has a max altitude of about 30,000 feet.
1966: A 17-year-old boy went from Bogota to Mexico City in the gear of a Colombian jet that reached 34,000 and survived.
1966: A 21-year-old stowed from France to Morocco on an Air France Caravelle but was found frozen to death on landing.
1969: Two people, one a 17 year old boy, attempted to stowaway from Havana Cuba to Madrid on a DC-8 which reached 29,000 feet. The teenager survived while the other unidentified stowaway fell to their death.
1972: An 18-year-old boy stowed away on a Boeing 707 flying from San Diego to New York at 35,000 feet. The teen was found frozen to death.
1986: a 35-year-old man flew from Panama City to Miami on a 707 and survived even though the flight reached as high as 39,000 feet.
1993: A 13-year-old flew from Bogota to Miami in a DC-8 wheel well. The flight hit 35,000 feet but the kid survived, although he was notably “covered in frost.”
2000: Two Cuban boys, aged 15 and 16, died from lack of oxygen just 20 minutes into a flight from Havana to London. They reportedly stowed on the wrong plane in a failed attempt to get to the United States.
2000: Tahitian man Fidel Maruhi survived a 4,000-mile flight to Los Angeles. He was treated for hypothermia and dehydration, then returned home.
2002: Cuban refugee Victor Molina sneaked to Montreal in the wheel well of a DC-10. He was reportedly kept alive by a broken compartment pipe that was not only leaking warm air but gave him something to hold on to. He still suffered severe hypothermia, but was allowed to stay in Canada.
2010: A runaway 16-year-old boy fell to his death onto a Boston suburb after stowing away in a flight from Charlotte, N.C.
2010: A 20-year-old Romanian man flew from Vienna to London the landing gear of a Boeing 747 owned by Dubai’s royal family. He survived likely because weather kept the plane from soaring above 25,000 feet.
2012: A 26-year-old man from Mozambique fell to his death in London after stowing away on a flight from Angola to London.
2014: The last known wheel-well fatality was a Nigerian man in his 30s who was found at Dulles International Airport in February. The Airbus 340 he was in had traveled from Johannesburg, South Africa, then on to Dakkar, Senegal, and landed at Dulles on Valentine's Day.
— with Andrew Blankstein and Polly DeFrank, NBC News
First published April 21 2014, 11:08 AM