Wheel Well Stowaways

What a way to go.

There are many reasons not to live beneath the flight path of an international airport. The noise, of course, is the first thing that springs to mind. And then there’s the pollution. But there’s also the possibility that something unexpected may fall from the sky. Blue water from airline toilets have been known to kill people, as have airplane parts. But there’s something even worse that has been known to happen.

Imagine this. You’re sitting in your home, maybe in front of your television, and unbeknownst to you, someone is rushing your way at 200 miles per hour. From the sky. The next thing you know, your back deck is thoroughly demolished and there’s a frozen corpse, or what’s left of it, staring back at you from amongst the rubble. This has happened. What a nightmare.

It never occurred to me before reading this article, entitled, “Out of thin air: the mystery of the man who fell from the sky” that there are a lot more people stowing away in the wheel well of airliners than one might imagine. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, as of February 2020, there have been 128 such stowaways, that they know of.

Before you start thinking this is a great way to get cheap transport, think again. More than 75 percent of all these stowaways are dead before they reach their destination. The rest are almost always detected, and many of them have permanent and severe health issues for the rest of their lives.

There is a wide variety of ways you can die while trying to pull this little caper. First, you have to pass airport security and figure out a way to approach the plane from the outside. You would most likely be viewed as a terrorist, and airports really want to keep their security ratings so they can continue having international flights. This means you represent billions of dollars of risk to them, and airports don’t take kindly to that. You could very well be shot before you even get to the plane.

But let’s suppose you make it that far, and you climb up into the wheel well. The wheels are still down, and you begin to taxi toward the runway. Hold on tight, because there will be a lot of vibration, and the noise is beyond all imagining. Expect to have permanent hearing loss at the very least. And if you get disoriented and fall while the plane is taking off, you’ll very likely get killed falling on the tarmac.

But let’s say you manage to survive this bit, and the airplane is taking off. Next, the landing gear is going to retract into the very wheel well that you currently occupy. A lot of people are crushed to death at that point. Not a pleasant way to go.

If you survive that, though, you may very well wish you hadn’t. At first, the tires keep you warm. But they cool off quickly, because you’re going up to about 35,000 feet, and the temperature will be 65 degrees below zero. The good news is the hydraulic lines will heat up your compartment a bit. The bad news is it will only heat it up to about 3 degrees Fahrenheit.

If the hypothermia doesn’t kill you, the lack of air pressure just might. It’ll be 4 times lower than sea level, and therefore you won’t be getting enough oxygen, and will die of hypoxia. Due to the rapid decrease in pressure, you’ll also experience what most divers refer to as the bends, which are painful and often deadly gas bubbles in the body.

If by some miracle you’re still alive at that point, you’ll most assuredly be unconscious, and then, when the landing gear drops down again, about 5 miles from the airport, you at least may not be aware of the unpleasant experience of falling thousands of feet and ruining someone’s back deck as well as their whole day.

Most of us would say it’s not worth the risk. It breaks my heart that so many people are desperate enough to want to take it, in order to have a chance to get out of their miserable circumstances. Still others are ignorant of the ordeal they are about to put their bodies through and think it will be a grand adventure. Either way, the results are often the same.

The sad thing is that sometimes these bodies are not identified. One stowaway from Kenya, the one whose body took out the guy’s back deck, has never been claimed by anyone, and it’s been over two years. He was about 30 years old. If you’ve made it to 30 and have not managed to form the type of bonds to where someone will miss you when you’re gone, I can imagine that your desperation for a do-over is even more magnified.  

After having read this article and written this post, I doubt I’ll ever hear retracting landing gear in the same way again. Was that a thud or a crunch? It’s all very sad.

The best way to travel vicariously is through books. Try mine! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5