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The 16-year-old boy who stowed away in the landing gear of a 767 flying from California to Hawaii survived with help from an unlikely source: the frigid temperatures that could have killed him.
The runaway from Santa Clara, Calif., is one of just 25 people to survive such a journey since 1947, though more than 100 have tried, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Fewer still have survived at an altitude approaching the 38,000 feet reached by Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45.
"It's amazing," said Roger Connor, curator at the National Air and Space Museum. "He's very, very lucky to be alive. Something like that happens only once in a long time."
A number of deadly hazards await a prospective stowaway — the lack of pressure and oxygen and extreme cold among them.
"He's very, very lucky to be alive. Something like that happens only once in a long time."
“The first thing is that you’re almost unpressurized at that altitude. We are talking about pressures at nearly 40,000 feet. That’s going to be about 30 percent less than the pressure at the top of Mount Everest,” Connor told NBC News. “And keep in mind that a lot of people don’t survive on Mount Everest even with extraordinary conditioning.”
In fact, Connor said, most people wouldn’t survive more than a few minutes at 30,000 feet. “To last at 38,000 feet for an extended period of time is really extraordinary. The few survivors almost all have been very young males who were presumably fairly fit.”
At those altitudes, temperatures are probably going to be around -80 degrees Fahrenheit and oxygen levels will be low, Connor said.
For those who survive the frigid conditions, the temperatures can actually turn out to be a life-saver.
“The cold might work to help slow the body’s processes to prevent death,” Connor said. “It’s somewhat analogous to people who survive after being submerged under icy waters. It’s an analog to hibernation.”
Temperatures might also be mitigated by frictional heat from the workings of the landing gear and breaks, Connor said. Warm hydraulic fluid lines in the wheel-well compartment would also provide some heat, according to an FAA study, but the warmth would diminish as the plane climbed.
Of course, if the cold temperatures and lack of oxygen don’t get you, there’s yet another danger: decompression sickness.
“At about 20,000 feet, you run into decompression sickness – the same problems a scuba diver runs into when he ascends too rapidly,” Connor said. “Nitrogen can form in the blood stream and there are all sorts of possibilities for cardiac arrest.
“The vast majority of these end very badly.”
According to the FAA, there have been 105 stowaways since 1947. Of those 105 people, 80 died and 25 survived, translating to at least a 76 percent death rate. But Connor noted that there may be more unreported deaths — some stowaways have probably fallen out of the wheel well and into the water when landing gear come down on flights coming in over the ocean.
“The cold might work to help slow the body’s processes to prevent death .... It’s somewhat analogous to people who survive after being submerged under icy waters. It’s an analog to hibernation.”
There’s also the possibility of being crushed by the landing gear’s moving parts.
While the wheel well of a big jet like a 767 probably has a good amount of space — enough for a person to hide out in and even move around—a stowaway would have to be careful to stay out of the way of the actuators and pistons, Connor said.
Even if a stowaway survives all those hazards, there are other dangers. As the landing gear come down, the stowaway can be exposed to winds at speeds of 200 mph, Connor said, adding, “most people can’t hang on in that scenario.”
Just two months ago, a body of a stowaway was found at Dulles International Airport in Washington. Two bodies were found within a week of each other at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport in 2003. Another was found in the landing gear of a British Airways Boeing 747 that arrived at Heathrow airport from South Africa in 2012. Some bodies discovered that way have been frozen.
Others have fallen from the sky. In 2012, a body of a man fell into a southwest London neighborhood, assumed to have fallen from the wheel well of a plane arriving from North Africa. The body of a North Carolina teenager was found in Boston in 2010, and his fingerprints were found in the wheel well of a Boeing 737. In 2005, a woman in New York found body parts in the backyard of her suburban home that had fallen from a South African Airways plane on its way to JFK.
"As the wheels came up they were glowing hot. They were burning us. The wheel house was shaking. It was like an earthquake. My whole body started feeling numb."
But there have been other tales of survival.
The last known survivor of a stowaway incident was last August on a domestic flight within Nigeria, Africa, according to the FAA. In 2000, Fidel Maruhi survived a 4,000-mile journey from Tahiti to Los Angeles. Victor Alvarez Molina survived a trip from Cuba to Canada in 2002, and five years later 15-year-old Andrei Shcherbakov survived a trip from Perm, Russia, to Moscow, claiming he went into the wheel well to check it out and fell asleep.
Pardeep Saini was found alive at London’s Heathrow airport in 1997 after traveling from Delhi with his younger brother, Vijay, who did not survive the trip.
"The noise was terrible," he told British media at the time. "As the wheels came up they were glowing hot. They were burning us. The wheel house was shaking. It was like an earthquake. My whole body started feeling numb."
He said he passed off minutes after take-off and believed his brother died quickly.