Teen Survives Flight in Wheel Well of Plane Despite Subzero Temps, Lack of Oxygen

By Michael Kuhne, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
April 24, 2014; 4:03 AM ET
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Surviving a flight in the wheel well of a commercial aircraft is possible, but highly unlikely due to subzero temperatures and thinner air than what is found at the peak of Mount Everest.

On Sunday, an unidentified 16-year old boy survived a five and a half hour flight across the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii in the wheel well of a Boeing 767 commercial jetliner, according to the Associated Press.

A plane taxis after landing at Mineta San Jose International Airport, Monday, April 21, 2014, in San Jose, Calif. A 16-year-old boy scrambled over a fence at the airport, crossed a tarmac and climbed into a jetliner's wheel well, then flew for five freezing hours to Hawaii, Sunday. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

"Kid's lucky to be alive," FBI Spokesman Tom Simon said to the Associated Press, adding the child was unconscious for most of the flight.

Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45 reached a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet above sea level, according to the Associated Press.

"Temperatures can range anywhere from minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 80 at that altitude," AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Jim Andrews said. "Those numbers would be typical for a cruising altitude."

"Even at the warm end of the range, it is extremely inhospitable outside," Andrews said. "It's a very dangerous environment for any length of time."

According to Centers for Disease Control, prolonged exposure to cold will force the body to use up stored energy, resulting in abnormally low body temperature, or hypothermia. If a body temperature falls below 95 F, then it is considered an emergency. Extended exposure to cold can lead to freezing to death, but revival is possible in some instances.

"When it comes to hypothermia, all bets are off," Dr. Jay Lemery, a professor at the University of Colorado specializing in emergency medicine in the wilderness told the Associated Press. A body shut down by extreme cold should be "presumed alive, until they are warm and dead."

A study about wheel-well passengers, performed by the Office of Aerospace Medicine of the Federal Aviation Administration, found that the survivors entered a virtual "hibernation" state.

Coupled with the dangers of getting maimed by the landing gear, a fatal plummet to the earth below and subzero temperatures, lower air pressure at higher altitudes can lead to death due to a lack of oxygen.

"The air is extremely dry (at 38,000 feet) and dramatically less oxygen is available," Andrews said.

At 29,000 feet, the elevation of Mount Everest, altitude sickness is not uncommon and can lead to fatalities, according to National Geographic.

The boy was screened after the flight and found to be unharmed, according to the Associate Press.

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"Doesn't even remember the flight," Simon said to the Associated Press. "It's amazing he survived that."

Since 1947 worldwide, there have been 105 known people who stowed away, according to data kept by the FAA, the article reported, adding the survival rate is 1 in 4.


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