Perhaps now we have even more to worry about when it comes to airline security holes.
A teenager hopped a fence and stowed himself inside the wheel well of a plane headed across the Pacific Ocean without being noticed, and miraculously survived. According to the FBI and airline officials, the 16-year-old somehow managed to live despite freezing temperatures 38,000 feet in the air, as well as little to no oxygen during the five-and-a-half hour trip from San Jose, Calif., to the island of Maui.
The teenager, who lives in Santa Clara, was reportedly running away from home when he jumped a fence and entered the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767 headed to Maui, undetected by airport security cameras. “He got very lucky that he got to go to Maui but he was not targeting Maui as a destination,” Tom Simon, an FBI spokesman in Honolulu, told the SFGate.
So how did the boy survive such a dangerous misadventure? Flying that high in the air means the air is too thin for humans to remain conscious. The boy passed out, most likely for several hours, during the flight — and survived sub-zero temperatures.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), most stowaways who manage to get into the wheel well of a plane die during the flight due to extreme temperatures (as low as minus 85 degrees) and lack of oxygen. There have been 105 stowaways on 94 different flights since 1947, with 76 percent of those resulting in deaths, The Wall Street Journal reported. Others die by falling off the plane. In 2011, a FAA report stated that stowaways are likely to be “crushed in a confined space when the gears retract, falling when the plane is landing, or dying from the heat produced by the engines of the aircraft.”
Typically, at around 18,000 feet in the air, hypoxia will set in, in which the body is not receiving proper oxygen. This causes light-headedness, weakness, and tremors. Blood oxygen levels drop by 22,000 feet, making the stowaways lose consciousness. “They either get crushed or frozen to death,” David Learmount, an aviation expert of Flight International magazine, told the BBC. “There’s a huge degree of ignorance. If anyone knew what they were letting themselves in for they wouldn’t do it.”
The overwhelming majority of these stowaway cases have been young men from developing countries, trying to escape their conflict-ridden homes to the West.
Cold as a life-saver?
With the survival rate at just about 25 percent, it’s unclear how the teenager survived without having proper oxygen flow, although the FAA has stated that it’s possible for stowaways to survive when their body goes into a “hibernation” state.
Part of the reason why he survived may actually have to do with the frigid temperatures. When the body experiences severe cold, the body’s processes actually slow down significantly, thus “hibernating,” in a sense.
“The cold might work to help slow the body’s processes to prevent death,” Roger Connor, curator at the National Air and Space Museum, told NBC News. “It’s somewhat analogous to people who survive after being submerged under icy waters. It’s an analog to hibernation.” Hibernation involves a slowed metabolism, lower body temperature, a slower breathing and heart rate; the body temperature also tries to match that of the environment. A hibernating person presumably requires less oxygen to survive.
Other instances of survivor stowaways involve the people passing out at some point, then miraculously regaining consciousness when the plane lands. In 2000, a man named Fidel Maruhi survived a 7.5 hour trip from Tahiti to L.A. When he landed and awoke, his body temperature was at 79 degrees.
Currently, the boy who arrived in Maui will be treated medically and will most likely not be charged with a crime. “He was unconscious for the lion’s share of the flight,” Simon told USA Today. “Kid’s lucky to be alive.”