Wheel-Well Stowaway

Wheel-well stowaways are individuals who attempt to travel in the landing gear compartment, also known as the wheel bay or undercarriage of an aircraft.

Between 1947 and June 2015, a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) researcher had documented 113 such attempts on 101 flights. These 113 people were all male and predominantly under age 30. There were 86 deaths, a 76 percent fatality rate, with many unidentified decedents. There may be additional undocumented cases of wheel-well stowaways. A further 19 incidents, identified since 2015, are listed here.

Wheel-Well Stowaway
DC-8 wheel-well stowaway space re-enactment by FAA CAMI researcher

Wheel-well stowaways face considerable risk of death during all phases of flight. Some have been unable to remain in the well during takeoff and landing and have fallen to their death. Immediately after takeoff, the landing gear retracts into the wheel wells, with the potential to crush the stowaway. If the stowaway is able to avoid physical injury, they still face hypothermia and hypoxia risks at the extremely low temperatures and low atmospheric pressure at high altitude, as well as hearing damage from prolonged exposure to the dangerously high noise levels outside the cabin.

Aeromedical physiology

At altitudes above approximately 2,500 m (8,000 ft), hypothermia becomes a risk and reduced atmospheric pressure and partial pressure of oxygen, which drop below the level required to support brain consciousness at the cruising altitudes of jet aircraft, may impair physiological processes. At altitudes above 6,000 m (20,000 ft), stowaways may also develop decompression sickness and nitrogen gas embolism.

Temperatures continue to decrease with altitude, and may drop as low as −63 °C (−81 °F). As the plane descends to lower altitudes, a gradual rewarming and reoxygenation occur; if the stowaway does not regain consciousness and mobility by the time the landing gear is lowered during the final approach, or has already died, the body may fall from the aircraft. According to the FAA, it is likely that the number of stowaways is higher than records show because bodies have fallen into the ocean or in remote areas. Many wheel-well stowaways are found, dead or alive, with their bodies covered in frost, suggesting severe hypothermia during flight. Fidel Maruhi, who survived a wheel-well flight from Tahiti to Los Angeles in 2000, had a body temperature of 26 °C (79 °F), well below the level usually considered fatal, when emergency personnel began treating him on the runway.

It is unknown how survivors did not perish from such extreme conditions. A 1996 FAA paper proposed that humans, when placed in an environment that overwhelms the body's ability to control its own temperature, become poikilothermic and enters a state of hibernation that allows the body to temporarily survive in low-oxygen environments. Among 99 known cases of wheel-well stowaways from 1947 through June 6, 2013, there were 76 fatalities and 23 survivors. It is possible there are additional undocumented cases of successful surviving wheel-well stowaways escaping the aircraft undetected possibly with outside assistance.

One survivor, Armando Socarras Ramirez, who defected from Cuba aboard an Iberia flight from Havana to Madrid in 1969, recalled in 2021 that his earliest post-flight memories are of Spanish doctors calling him "Mr. Popsicle" because ice covered his body when the pilot discovered him after his arrival. He had boarded the plane while it was taxiing, carrying a flashlight, rope, and wool to stuff his ears; a companion fell out of the other wheel well before takeoff and a third backed out at the last moment. After takeoff, he had suffered frostbite on his middle finger so severe it turned black holding on until the wheels retracted, but then remembered nothing save shivering and shaking from the extreme cold until he lost consciousness. It took him a month in a Spanish hospital to regain his hearing, but he reports no lingering medical issues from the experience.

In the media

Wheel-well stowaways have been widely covered in the press and media at large throughout the history of passenger airlines. One of the most notable incidents involved Keith Sapsford (14) from Sydney, Australia, who fell 200 feet (60 m) to his death from the wheel-well of a Tokyo-bound Japan Air Lines Douglas DC-8 on February 24, 1970, shortly after takeoff from Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport. Amateur photographer John Gilpin was taking pictures of planes taking off that day, and did not realize he had captured the boy's final moments until he developed the pictures a week later. The photo was then featured in Life magazine's issue for the week of March 6, 1970, in their "Parting Shots" section of particularly newsworthy photos, across the fold of a two-page spread.

List of wheel-well stowaways

Below is a chronological list of documented aircraft wheel-well stowaway incidents. Stowaways have also traveled in a cargo hold, or in a spare parts compartment, both of which are pressurized, or even in the pressurized cabin itself. In at least one other instance, on July 31, 2013, a cat survived a flight from Athens to Zürich in the front undercarriage of an Airbus A321. Those types of incidents are not included in the scope of the list below.

Date Stowaway(s) Flight Aircraft Stowaway's fate
Aug 7, 1946 Bas Wie, 12 KupangDarwin Douglas DC-3 Survived, naturalised in Australia in 1958 and married
Aug 5, 1947 Male, 30 LisbonNatal Douglas DC-3 Survived
Nov 15, 1948 Male Fiji Indian NadiHonolulu Survived, arrested, jailed for 60 days and deported back to Fiji
Sep 9, 1960 Daniel Melo, 16 Santa Maria-Bermuda Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation Survived, caught by LAV's ground team and deported.
Sep 28, 1966 Male, 17 BogotáMexico City Boeing 707 Survived at 34,000 feet (10,000 m)
Apr 18, 1966 Unidentified man, about 24 MoscowParis Sud Aviation Caravelle Died
Apr 19, 1966 Unknown youth, 20/21 OrlyMorocco Sud Aviation Caravelle Died (frozen)
Jun 4, 1969 Armando Socarras Ramírez, 17, Jorge Pérez Blanco, 16 HavanaMadrid
(Iberia Flight 904)
Douglas DC-8 Pérez fell out before takeoff and survived to be imprisoned by the Cuban government. Socarras made to Madrid, was released after 52 days in a Spanish hospital, and as of 2021 lives in Virginia.
Jul 26, 1969 Male, 17, and a second unknown HavanaMadrid Douglas DC-8 One survived, second fell to death
Feb 22, 1970 Keith Sapsford, 14 SydneyTokyo
(Japan Airlines flight)
Douglas DC-8 Sapsford fell to his death after the landing gear doors opened underneath him as the gear retracted, falling from 200 feet (61 m) during the take off sequence. His fatal fall was inadvertently captured by amateur photographer John Gilpin and the photograph was published in Life magazine.
Jun 21, 1970 Male, 13 LyonAbidjan Douglas DC-8 Died (fell at Abidjan when landing gear lowered)
Apr 14, 1972 Male, 18 San DiegoNew York City Boeing 707 Died (froze)
Mar 23, 1975 Unknown youth BogotáMiami Boeing 707 Died (fell)
Nov 14, 1986 Male, 35 PanamaMiami Boeing 707 Survived at 39,000 feet (12,000 m)
Feb 19, 1990 Two men from Trinidad TrinidadToronto BWIA West Indies Airways Lockheed L1011 Both survived 5 hour flight
Mar 15, 1993 Shamsul Ramli, 17 Kuala LumpurJohannesburg
(Malaysia Airlines flight)
Boeing 747 Died. Body found in the 747's wheel well at Johannesburg Airport on arrival.
Jun 4, 1993 Juan Carlos Guzmán-Betancourt, 17 BogotáMiami
(Arca Airline flight)
Douglas DC-8 Survived at 35,000 feet (11,000 m), but frosted
Aug 4, 1993 Male, 19 BogotáNew York City Boeing 747 Died
1995 Unknown migrant worker To Shanghai Boeing 747 Died (froze and fell during landing at Pudong International Airport)
Aug 2, 1996 Two Mongolian boys, about 9 and 12 Ulan BatorKadena Air Base U.S. Air Force Lockheed C-141B 12-year-old declared dead after discovery. Other child died two days later.
Oct 14, 1996 Pardeep Saini, 22, Vijay Saini, 19 New DelhiLondon Boeing 747 Pardeep survived in the nose wheel well at 35,000 feet (11,000 m), Vijay died
Mar 22, 1997 Male, adolescent NairobiLondon Boeing 747 Died (crushed in nosewheel well)
1998 Trevor Jacobs, 30 AntiguaTrinidad McDonnell Douglas MD-80 Died (Trevor Jacobs was wanted on several criminal charges, including kidnapping)
Feb 7, 1998 Unknown male BakuLondon
(British Airways Flight 2028)
Boeing 767 Died, body discovered upon arrival at Gatwick Airport on February 8
Jun 28, 1998 Chinese male, 23 ShanghaiTokyo Boeing 747 Survived, but hospitalized in critical condition
Sep 14, 1998 Emilio Dominguez, 23 San Pedro SulaMiami
(Iberia Flight 6130)
McDonnell Douglas DC-9 Survived at 33,000 feet (10,000 m), traveled seeking work, but was returned to Honduras
Jun 28, 1999 Yaguine Koita and Fodé Tounkara, 14 and 13 ConakryBrussels
(Sabena Flight 520)
Airbus A330 Both died (frozen)
Aug 4, 2000 Fidel Maruhi, 24 PapeeteLos AngelesParis
(Air France Flight 71)
Boeing 747-400 Survived at 38,000 feet (12,000 m). Discovered during a refueling stopover in Los Angeles, where his body temperature had dropped to 26 °C (79 °F), well below levels usually considered lethal, Maruhi later told, that the main motive behind his travel to France was to "shake hands" with Zinedine Zidane.
Jun 2001 Mohammed Ayaz, 21 MuharraqLondon Boeing 777 Died (traveled to London due to lack of employment in Pakistan and Bahrain)
Aug 7, 2001 Unknown male LondonNew York City
(American Airlines Flight 131)
Boeing 777 Died (fell from 1,500 feet (460 m) on approach to John F. Kennedy International Airport)
Sep 2001 Mikhail Semenyaga, 24 PermYekaterinburgFrankfurt Died
Dec 24, 2001 Alberto Rodriguez, 15, Maikel Almira, 16 HavanaLondon Boeing 777 Both died (planned on hiding on a flight to Miami)
Jul 2002 Cameroonian male, 34 Rio de JaneiroParis
(Air France flight)
Died
Dec 2002 Victor Alvarez Molina, 24 HavanaMontreal McDonnell Douglas DC-10 Survived, received refugee status in Canada
Dec 5, 2002 Two boys, 12 and 14 AccraLondon McDonnell Douglas DC-10 Both died
Jan 11, 2003 Mariano Alexis Herrera-Ba, Punta Cana International Airport technician Punta CanaToronto Airbus A320 Died
Jan 23, 2003 Two unidentified men ParisShanghai
(Air France Flight 112)
Boeing 777 Both died (fell on approach to Pudong International Airport)
Feb 25, 2003 Unknown male Mali or GabonParis? Died (fell near Paris)
Mar 25, 2003 Unknown Russian male, 19 To Frankfurt Died (was crushed and then fell when approaching Frankfurt)
Dec 24, 2003 Unknown male, about 25 Montego BayNew York City Died
Dec 30, 2003 Unknown male, 30s LagosLondonNew York City
(British Airways Flight 117)
Boeing 747 Died (body found upon arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport)
Jul 21, 2004 Unknown male, 20 Dominican RepublicDüsseldorf Died (froze)
Oct 22, 2004 Unknown male, 20s MiamiDetroit Boeing 737 Died
Nov 11, 2004 Liang Kailong, 14, Su Qing, 13 KunmingChongqing Airbus A320 Liang survived, Su died (fell shortly after takeoff)
Nov 16, 2004 Unknown MaliParis Died
Nov 30, 2004 Unknown male Died (fell, body found in Louvain)
May 25, 2005 Unknown boy, about 10 DunhuangLanzhou Airbus A320 Died (fell soon after takeoff)
Jun 7, 2005 Unidentified JohannesburgDakarNew York City
(South African Airways Flight 203)
Airbus A340 Died (crushed on approach to John F. Kennedy International Airport)
Jan 12, 2007 Male JohannesburgDakarAtlanta
(Delta Air Lines Flight 35)
Boeing 767 Died (frozen and crushed)
Jan 15, 2007 Unidentified BanjulDakarBrussels Airbus A330-300 Died
Jan 28, 2007 Samuel Peter Benjamin, 17 SingaporeVancouverHong KongCape TownLondonLos Angeles Boeing 747 Died in the front wheel well, presumably after hitching the aircraft in his hometown Cape Town on January 22, body discovered in Los Angeles
Jul 19, 2007 Asian, 50s ShanghaiSan Francisco
(United Airlines flight)
Boeing 747 Died (in the nose gear wheel well)
Sep 21, 2007 Andrey Shcherbakov, 15 PermMoscow Boeing 737 Survived, but suffered severe frostbite
Oct 12, 2007 Osama R.M. Shublaq Kuala LumpurSingapore
(Singapore Airlines Flight 119)
Boeing 777-200 Survived
Oct 21, 2007 Ilgar Ashumov, 15 BakuMoscow Died on approach to Domodedovo International Airport, body found 12 km from the airport
Aug 9, 2009 Filipp Yurchenko, 19 IrkutskKhabarovskVladivostok
(Vladivostok Avia Flight 486)
Airbus A320 Died
Feb 7, 2010 Unknown male New York CityNarita
(Delta Air Lines Flight 59)
Boeing 777 Died
Feb 18, 2010 Unknown Dominican male Santo DomingoMiami
(Amerijet flight)
Boeing 767 Died (fell during takeoff)
Mar 2010 Okechukwu Okeke, Nigerian Lagos to the United States
(Delta Air Lines flight)
Boeing 777 Died in the nose wheel well
Apr 2010 Unknown African male To Zürich Died (fell after landing gear was lowered on approach to Zürich, body found in Weisslingen)
Jun 6, 2010 Romanian male, 20 ViennaLondon Boeing 747 Survived
Jul 9, 2010 Unknown male BeirutRiyadh
(Nasair flight)
Airbus A320 Died
Sep 10, 2010 Nigerian national JohannesburgLagos
(Arik Air flight)
Died (crushed)
Nov 2, 2010 Roman Sorokovikov, 16 YerbogachenKirensk Antonov An-24 Survived, but planned to reach Irkutsk
Nov 15, 2010 Delvonte Tisdale, 16 CharlotteBoston
(US Airways Flight 1776)
Boeing 737 Died (possible fatal injury inside wheel well from landing gear, fell on approach to Boston)
Jan 15, 2011 Qasim Siddique LahoreDubai
(Airblue flight)
Died (fell shortly after takeoff)
Jul 13, 2011 Adonis Guerrero Barrios, 23 HavanaMadrid Airbus A340 Died
Jul 26, 2012 Unidentified male Cape TownLondon
(British Airways flight)
Boeing 747-400 Died
Sep 9, 2012 Jose Matada, 27 LuandaLondon Boeing 777 Died (fell)
Oct 26, 2012 Unidentified male LondonLagos Airbus A340-500 Died
Apr 8, 2013 Unidentified male YaoundéParis
(Camair-Co flight)
Boeing 767 Died
Jun 6, 2013 Georgian national, 22 (presumably) RiminiMoscow
(I-Fly flight)
Airbus A321 Died four days before discovery, and may have been undetected for seven or more previous flights; stowaway boarding location undetermined.
Jul 18, 2013 Hikmet Komur, 32 IstanbulLondon
(British Airways Flight 675)
Airbus A320 Died (froze), body found upon arrival at Heathrow Airport
Jul 25, 2013 Unknown male OuagadougouNiameyParis
(Air France Flight 547)
Airbus A330 Died (fell during landing in Niamey)
Aug 24, 2013 Daniel Ihekina, 13/14 Benin CityLagos Survived
Jan 5, 2014 Unknown MashhadMedina (emergency landing due to landing gear failure) Boeing 767-300ER Died (body parts fell at an intersection in Mushrefa, Jeddah)
Feb 22, 2014 Chris Dikeh, Nigerian national DakarWashington, D.C. Airbus A340-300 Died
Apr 20, 2014 Yahya Abdi, Somali national, 16 San JoseKahului
(Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45)
Boeing 767 Survived
Jul 5, 2014 Male, 17 SandefjordAmsterdam
(KLM Cityhopper flight)
Embraer 190 Died
July 27, 2014 Unknown male teenager Mali (presumably)–Ramstein Air Base Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules Died
March 14, 2015 Unidentified male, 40s LagosNew York City
(Arik Air flight)
Airbus A340-500 Died (the body was presumed to be in the wheel well from March 11, 2015, when the aircraft had its last flight from New York)
April 7, 2015 Mario Steven Ambarita, 21 PekanbaruJakarta
(Garuda Indonesia Flight 177)
Boeing 737-800 Survived
June 19, 2015 Carlito Vale, Mozambican national, 28/29, and Themba Cabeka, 24 JohannesburgLondon
(British Airways Flight 54)
Boeing 747-400 Vale died (fell during approach, body recovered from a roof in Richmond).
Cabeka survived with life-changing injuries and has been granted leave to remain.
September 12, 2015 Unidentified stowaway NairobiAmsterdam
(Emirates SkyCargo flight)
Boeing 777-200 Died, body discovered upon arrival at Schiphol Airport
January 11, 2016 Unidentified male São PauloParis
(Air France flight)
Boeing 777 Died, body discovered during maintenance operations on the Boeing 777 at Orly Airport
February 14, 2016 Unidentified man MunichDurban
(Western Global Airlines flight)
McDonnell Douglas MD-11 Died, body discovered during refuelling at Harare International Airport, Zimbabwe.
June 7, 2016 Unidentified male DakarBrussels
(Brussels Airlines Flight 204)
Airbus A330 Died, body discovered during regular maintenance at Brussels Airport
September 21, 2016 Unidentified African male NigeriaJeddah
(Flynas flight)
Boeing 747 Died, body discovered in the rear wheel well during regular check at King Abdulaziz International Airport
November 30, 2016 Unidentified stowaway LagosJohannesburg
(Arik Air flight)
Airbus A330-200 Died, body discovered at the O. R. Tambo International Airport
August 12, 2017 Unidentified Dominican male Santo DomingoMiami
(American Airlines Flight 1026)
Airbus A321 Survived, was returned to Dominican Republic
January 13, 2018 Unidentified male Honolulu–Japan
(Delta Air Lines flight)
Died, body fell on take-off.
February 11, 2018 Unidentified African man KinshasaUkunda
(Kenya Airways flight)
Died, found after emergency landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport
February 26, 2018 Marco Vinicio PG, 17, and Luis Manuel Ch. P., 16 GuayaquilNew York
(LATAM Flight 1438)
Boeing 767-300 Both died (bodies fell on takeoff)
August 2018 Unidentified male CaracasLa Fría Died (fell on takeoff from Simón Bolívar International Airport)
April 13, 2019 Unidentified male Pointe-à-PitreCayenne

(Air France Flight 600)

Airbus A320 Survived. Homeless man found on the tarmac of the Félix Éboué Airport. The flight made a refuelling stop at Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport in Martinique between Pointe-à-Pitre and Cayenne.
June 30, 2019 Unidentified male, 29 NairobiLondon

(Kenya Airways Flight 100)

Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner Died (froze during the flight and fell from the landing gear on approach to London Heathrow Airport. The body fell into a garden in Clapham, one meter (3 ft) away from a sunbathing resident). An investigation by Sky News initially identified the man as 29-year old Paul Manyasi, an employee of Colnet, a cleaning company contracted by Kenya Airports Authority (KAA). KAA and Colnet both claimed that their records showed that Manyasi was never employed by Colnet, nor did his name appear on any airport staff registers. Later reporting by KTN News Kenya found that the family who claimed to have positively identified Manyasi as their son was not even named Manyasi, had no son named Paul and had been paid US$200 to make the claim. Sky retracted the story and apologized to its readers for having been misled and Colnet for having erroneously reported the man had been an employee.
September 30, 2019 Unidentified male, 20s. ConakryCasablanca

(Royal Air Maroc Flight 526)

Boeing 737-800 Died. Unknown man in his twenties was found lifeless in plane's landing gear compartment. External examination of the body revealed severe abrasions, particularly on the chest, abdomen and limbs. The body was frozen and rigor mortis had already set in. The cause of death was judged to occur as a result of the combined effect of hypothermia and thoracic trauma.
January 7, 2020 Unidentified male AbidjanParis

(Air France Flight 703)

Boeing 777-300 Died (cause unknown; body found in plane's landing gear upon arrival at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport)
February 4, 2021 Kenyan national, 16 London StanstedMaastricht

(Turkish Airlines Flight 6305)

Airbus A330 Survived. Was hospitalized but recovered. The flight reportedly left from Nairobi previously, arriving in London after a stop in Istanbul.
April 19, 2021 Unidentified male Lagos–Amsterdam

(KLM Flight 588)

Airbus A330-200 Died during the flight, likely of hypothermia.
August 16, 2021 Shafiullah Hotak(~25), Fida Mohammad (~20), Zaki Anwari (19) Kabul, Afghanistan Boeing C-17 Three men were among those who died during the 2021 Kabul Airport evacuation. Several men were seen clinging on to the landing gear, with at least two of them falling from the plane moments after takeoff. The bodies of the fallen men were later recovered from the rooftop of a house in Kabul and were identified as Shafiullah Hotak (~25 years) and Fida Mohammad (~20 years) Zaki Anwari (19) was a third fatality, whose remains were seen trapped in the landing gear, hours after take-off. Anwari was a footballer and had represented Afghanistan's under-23 team.
November 27, 2021 Unidentified male Guatemala City, GUA-Miami, FL (American Airlines Flight 1182) Boeing 737-800 Survived. The unidentified male was taken into the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and was taken to the hospital for medical evaluation.
January 23, 2022 Unidentified male, 22 years old, from Kenya Johannesburg – Nairobi – Amsterdam Cargolux Italia (Flight CLX 7156) Boeing 747-400F Survived. The unidentified male was apprehended by Dutch border control and is undergoing medical evaluation.
April 17, 2023 Unidentified male, possibly from Nigeria LagosTorontoAmsterdam (KLM) Boeing 777 Died on flight, possibly from hypothermia
September 15, 2023 Unidentified male, possibly from Gambia Banjul – Several destinations in Europe – Amsterdam – Istanbul Turkish Airlines Airbus A330 Died, possibly got on in Gambia on September 10. Found on September 15 during routine maintenance in Istanbul.
December 28, 2023 Unidentified male, possibly in his 20s Oran - Paris Orly (Air Algeria) Boeing 737 Alive but in critical conditions (severe hypothermia)

References

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