Body found in jet’s wheel well

Times Staff Writers

A youth was found dead Sunday in the wheel well of a British Airways jet at Los Angeles International Airport, authorities said.

A British Airways pilot found the body during a routine preflight check and notified airport officials about 4:30 p.m. The 747-400 had arrived from London Heathrow Airport at 3:15 p.m. and was to depart for a return flight at 5:20 p.m.

Authorities had not identified the victim as of late Sunday, saying only that he was a young black male. A source familiar with the investigation said the youth -- believed to be 17 or 18 -- carried documents identifying himself as a South African national born in 1989.

Law enforcement and aviation officials at the scene had not determined whether he got into the aircraft in London or its previous departure point of Hong Kong.

“The investigation needs to run its course to determine where and how the victim obtained access to the aircraft before it landed at LAX Sunday afternoon,” said Paul A. Haney, deputy executive director of airports and security for Los Angeles World Airports.


There have been several incidents in recent years of people climbing into airplane wheel wells -- usually ending in death, authorities said.

A body was found Jan. 12 in a plane that landed in Atlanta. The man, who carried no identification, was believed to have entered the compartment when the plane left Dakar, Senegal, for the nine-hour flight to Atlanta.

Extreme cold and a lack of oxygen in the wheel wells make the odds of survival slim. Stowaways also have fallen from the wheel wells or been crushed by the landing gear.

But there have been a few cases of stowaways surviving. In 2000, a man survived a flight from Papeete, French Polynesia, to Los Angeles. His core body temperature when he was found at LAX was 79 degrees, well below what is normally fatal. A Cuban man made it alive to Montreal in the wheel well of a plane in 2002. And in 1999, an 18-year-old Senegalese man survived a five-hour flight to France, but died after he stowed away on another flight later that year.

More typical are cases like Sunday’s discovery of the body at LAX. Authorities are uncertain, however, of the survival rate of wheel-well stowaways, because bodies that fall out of flying aircraft may not be recovered. Stowaways unable to secure themselves can fall more than 1,000 feet when landing gear doors open. Experts believe that many of those who fall out are already dead or unconscious.

In 2005, the severed leg of a stowaway landed in a suburban New York backyard near John F. Kennedy Airport. A second leg was later found in the wheel well of a plane from South Africa that had stopped in Senegal.

Little is known about stowaways’ motivations because so few survive. Many hail from impoverished nations and board planes bound for North America or Europe, presumably seeking better lives.

That was the case of two 14-year-old boys whose bodies were found in the wheel well of a plane in Brussels after a flight from their West African home country of Guinea. In that case, a letter was found in one of the boys’ pockets. Signed by both boys, it said they wished to bring attention to the suffering of children in Africa. Written in French, the letter explained: “If you see that we have sacrificed and risked our lives, it is because there is too much suffering in Africa and we need you to struggle against poverty and put an end to war in Africa. Nevertheless, we want to study and we ask you to help us in Africa to study to be like you.”