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A boy was found dead in the wheel well of a U.S. Air Force plane that landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, a senior defense official told NBC News. The C-130 originated in Mali, but made several stops along the way to Germany — some at remote, undeveloped grass or dirt airstrips. The discovery at the U.S. airbase was made Sunday night local time. A senior official said it is believed that the boy climbed into the wheel well in Mali, but it was not yet clear whether he was from Mali or Chad, or how he managed to get past security. He was perched far inside the body of the plane and had concealed himself so he was not readily visible during a routine safety inspection, the official said.

The body was discovered during a post-mission maintenance check, during which it was found in a near-inaccessible space above the wheel well: Maintenance crews noticed a small piece of orange cloth protruding from a tight seam in the plane's skin. The boy had managed to wedge himself into such a tight space that Air Force mechanics had to remove an exterior panel on the fuselage to access his body, U.S. military officials said. The boy is believed to be between 12 and 15 years old. Because he is a foreign national, not an American, German authorities have taken charge of the investigation and autopsy. The body was immediately tested for any communicable diseases, and none were found. The U.S. military is investigating how he got into the wheel well in what appears to be a serious security breach. C-130s transport troops and equipment, and have been used throughout the Air Force since 1956.


— Jim Miklaszewski, Courtney Kube and Elizabeth Chuck