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How to survive a five-hour plane flight in a wheel well

Dennis Grombkowski

Boy survives five-and-a-half-hour plane ride in landing gear. That's the crazy story that's been making the rounds this week. Apparently a 16 year-old kid — whose name is being withheld — ran away from his home in Santa Clara, California on Sunday night and decided to hitch a lift to Maui. The only thing is, he didn't have a ticket. (He did, however, have a comb, which sounds like the plot of at least 17 MacGyver episodes.)

According to the FBI, the teenager hopped the fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport and boarded the wheel well — the section of the undercarriage that stores the plane's wheels — of Hawaii Flight 45. The flight reached altitudes of 38,000 feet, which would have made it extremely difficult for him to breathe since the air pressure was so low. When the plane landed, the ground crew at Kahului Airport in Maui found the teenager "wandering the tarmac, dazed and confused," presumably having made the five-hour flight as a stowaway.

Though some people remain skeptical, the FBI buys his story. "I understand everybody's skepticism, but his story checks out," said spokesperson Tom Simon. "He went into the wheel well in California and he came out of the wheel well in Hawaii.

So how did he survive the flight?

How did he even manage to sneak onto the plane?

It appears the teenager was able to scale the perimeter of the fence at SJC "under the cover of darkness," according to an airport official quoted at ABC News. The official spokesperson of the San Jose Airport said the airport doesn't have video of someone scaling a fence, though there is video of someone walking around on the grounds.

There is also video, ABC reported, of the stowaway exiting the wheel well in Kahului, Maui. He was wearing a hoodie, jeans, and sneakers.

How hard is it to get into a wheel well?

"Not hard at all," according to Jose Wolfman Guillen, a ground operations coordinator at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Just grab onto the landing gear like a ladder, says Guillen, and climb in. Of course, that's the easy part. The hard part is not being crushed once you're in there. Because there's not much room in the compartment — "even less than in the trunk of a car," says Guillen — there's a big chance the stowaway could be bashed by the tires as they close.

How did he stay warm? Isn't it really cold at 30,000 feet?

A Boeing 767 has a gross weight of approximately 300,000 pounds. That immense weight coupled with the friction resulting from a high-speed takeoff causes the plane's tires to heat up. As Kurt Streeter reported for the LA Times, it's possible that the heat emanating from the wheel well area helped keep the teenager alive: "Heat from hydraulic lines in the wheel well along with retained heat in the tires can help keep stowaways warm."

Wouldn't he have passed out at that height?

Simon said it's likely that, because of the low oxygen at high altitudes, the teenager "blacked out at about 10,000 feet," and remained unconscious "for pretty much the entire flight." This is consistent with the testimony of the airport ground crew who found him, who said that he appeared walking around "dazed and confused."

Because the plane was climbing at a steady pace, the teenager might have been able to experience unconsciousness gradually. As the wheel well cooled, hypothermia likely began to set in, resulting in some type of suspended animation — not unlike hibernation, which preserves the animal's nervous system. "It's possible," Dr. Richard Besser told ABC, "if your body slows down enough it doesn't need as much oxygen to survive."

Did he have an advantage because he's young?

Probably. In an article at Time, the medical director of the Altitude Medicine Center said that young people's brains are "more adaptable" than older folks'. That's why, he says, kids recover from comas at a higher rate than older patients. It's also likely, as LiveScience reports, that the stowaway didn't have "heart defects that could have caused fatal heart arrhythmias."

Still, trauma surgeon Kenneth Stahl said the teenager will probably have permanent brain damage from his experience.

Did he get in trouble?

Simon told ABC News the teenager was taken into custody, where he was examined by a medical doctor for injuries — none were found. Simon said the authorities are investigating how he breached the security perimeter of the airport to board the plane. But beyond that, Simon said the boy posed no threat to the airline, and therefore would not be charged. Hawaii Airlines has also released a statement saying their "primary concern now is for the wellbeing of the boy."

How common is this?

The 16-year-old isn't the first wheel-well passenger to survive a long flight. In 2000, a man named Fidel Maruhi survived a seven-hour ride in a wheel well from Tahiti to Los Angeles. The Federal Aviation Association lists two reported cases of high-altitude stowaways: one from Cuba to Spain, one from Colombia to Miami. Both flights reached altitudes of 35,000 feet, which means the stowaways would've experienced negative-65 degree temperatures, a lack of pressurization, and little to no oxygen.

Of course, the majority of people who attempt such flights die in the process. According to a statement released by the FAA, since 1947 there have been 105 stowaways. Of that number, only 25 have survived. Last summer, one dead stowaway remained in the wheel-well of a Russian charter plane for at least seven flights before his body was discovered.

The FAA claims that wheel-well stowaways "continue to be a problem and require prevention." Obviously explosives would be a concern if the stowaways were criminals, but there's also the fact that wheel-wells contain all sorts of really important flight stuff like landing gear. If that were tampered with during the flight, there would be devastating consequences.

But aviation security expert Jeffrey Price says: "Right now the threat level isn't at the point where it justifies the cost" of increased security.

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