Do airplane stowaways ever survive?

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Dec. 31 2003 2:07 PM

Do Jet Stowaways Ever Survive?

The dangers of traveling beneath business class.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

For the second time in a week, police at New York's Kennedy Airport have discovered a body in the wheel well of an arriving jet. What are the hazards of traveling in an airplane's wheel well, and do any of these desperate stowaways ever survive?

The odds of survival, always slim at best, decrease in proportion to the duration and altitude of the flight. Few stowaways are equipped to handle the frigid temperatures, which can dip below minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit on some flights. The bodies of stowaways usually show signs of severe frostbite and the longer the flight, the more likely that the illicit passenger will succumb to the elements.

Others perish due to asphyxiation, as the air at high altitudes lacks sufficient oxygen and the wheel wells are unpressurized. Think of how mountaineers scaling Mount Everest are forced to carry oxygen tanks, and that peak measures shy of 30,000 feet—just below the altitude that many planes reach. The chilliness and the oxygen deprivation become more severe the higher a plane climbs, so stowaways on high-flying transoceanic voyages face the worst odds.

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A third danger is the likelihood of tumbling from the wheel well prior to arrival. Landing gear is typically deployed at an altitude of around 1,500 feet, and the stowaways are given little warning. Unless they're holding onto something inside the compartment, a fatal plunge is difficult to avoid. Blackouts caused by oxygen deprivation are common, so many stowaways are likely unconscious at the crucial moment.

Few hopeful refugees attempt wheel-well arrivals every year. In 2000, for example, the FAA counted 13 such stowaways, three of whom survived. In 2001, six tried to enter the United States in such a fashion, with no survivors. In 2002, five perished and one survived. (The wheel-well survival rate since 1947 is 20.3 percent.) The death estimates may be low, as some bodies may have tumbled out into water or remote areas, never to be recovered.

There is, however, the occasional miracle case, none more fantastic than the tale of Fidel Maruhi. The Tahitian native lived through a 7-and-a-half-hour flight from Papeete to Los Angeles. When he was discovered, Maruhi's body temperature was just 79 degrees, about 6 degrees colder than what's usually considered fatal. Repatriated to Tahiti after his feat, Maruhi later said that he remembers nothing of the trip, having blacked out just after takeoff.

Last December, a Cuban refugee named Victor Alvarez Molina made it to Montreal in the wheel well of a DC-10, enduring four hours in temperatures that dropped to minus-40 F. His saving grace was a leak in a compartment pipe, which seeped out warm air. The pipe also provided him a convenient lifeline to hold onto when the landing gear deployed. Unlike Maruhi, Molina was granted refugee status and now hopes to bring his family to Canada. Presumably in more comfortable circumstances.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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