Teen stowaway describes high-altitude trip to Hawaii from San Jose

A Bay Area teenager who survived stowing away in the wheel well of a jetliner on its flight from San Jose International Airport to Hawaii said this week that anyone thinking of running away shouldn’t follow his lead because they’d be risking death.

In April, 15-year-old Yahye Abdi somehow managed to survive the perilous 5½-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean, during which he was subjected to deadly thin air and freezing temperatures that scientists say would have typically killed a person.

In his first interview since the incident, Yahye told KPIX-TV in San Francisco that he picked the Hawaiian Airlines jetliner sitting on the tarmac because it was the closest one he could find flying west, and he was desperate to see his mother, who lives in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. But he advised others against taking the same extreme measures.

“They shouldn’t run away, sometimes they’ll end up dying,” he said. “I only did it because I didn’t want to live with my stepmom. ... I wanted to find my mom. I haven’t seen her since I was young.”

Before stowing away on the flight to Hawaii, Yahye lived with his father and stepmother in Santa Clara.


Authorities said on April 20, Yahye hopped a fence at the airport and climbed into the wheel well of the jetliner, where he remained until it landed in Maui later that morning. Airliner crew members spotted him wandering the tarmac after it landed and notified authorities, who took the teenager into custody.

San Jose police have not charged the teen with a crime.

Since the incident, Yahye has been staying in a foster home, he told KPIX. He said he was conscious as it left San Jose and could see the ocean and top of the clouds through holes in the wheel well. He said he wasn’t scared and covered his ears from the jetliner’s deafening engines. His hearing is only now beginning to recover, KPIX reported.

The teen’s journey stunned aviation and medical experts.

Stowing away where he did 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%.

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.”

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