Aviation experts and authorities say they are baffled at how a teen stowaway survived a 5-1/2-hour flight from California to Hawaii in a jetliner wheel well and appeared to emerge unscathed.
Stowing away in a plane wheel well does not usually end well, experts say. Those who do so may fall to their deaths, be crushed by the landing gear or succumb to cold and lack of oxygen. Federal Aviation Administration records show that of the 105 people known to have stowed away on flights around the world over the last 67 years, only 25 lived through the ordeal, a survival rate of 23.8%.
"He must have had the four-leaf clover in his hand or something," said Jeff Price, an aviation security expert at Metropolitan State University in Denver.
Authorities said the temperature in the wheel well at the jet's cruising altitude of 38,000 feet could have dropped to 50 degrees below zero or lower. Oxygen also would have been in painfully short supply at that altitude, about 9,000 feet higher than the summit of Mt. Everest.
Armand Dorian, a Los Angeles doctor who treated a high-altitude stowaway survivor in 2000, said the teen's survival was not as surprising as the fact that he appeared unruffled.
For the minority of stowaways who survive, "the planets align," said Dorian, an associate clinical professor of emergency medicine at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. For the lucky few, "the need for oxygen declines as the body cools. It's exactly like the concept of cryogenic freezing.... The boy's body went into a frozen state."
When Dorian treated another wheel-well stowaway in 2000, the patient suffered much more obvious trauma. That victim, in his 20s, crumpled onto the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport after a 7 1/2-hour flight from Tahiti. His body-core temperature had dropped to 79 degrees, which normally would be fatal, according to accounts at the time.
Dorian recalled that the patient had to be placed on a ventilator and pumped full of warm fluids via tubes inserted in his chest. Because of the unscathed appearance of the teen who landed in Hawaii, the doctor is skeptical about where in the plane he actually traveled.
The FBI and Hawaiian Airlines officials said, however, that they were convinced the teen had made the trip in the wheel well, which is not heated or pressurized like the airliner's main cabin.
If the teen did manage to bypass security and get onto the plane undetected, it’s troubling, aviation experts said.
The Transportation Security Administration planned to meet with law enforcement and airport officials to review security after the incident, which experts noted could have been catastrophic had the stowaway been armed with explosives.