One Dead, One Just Embarrassed
It's been a bad week for stowaways. While the macabre death of
an apparent stowaway in the wheel well of a South African Airbus
340 has garnered many headlines (including here), another stowaway
left New York as an "unmanifested passenger" on a Spirit Air flight
to Detroit last Thursday.
The thing is, he wasn't trying to stow away, but the baggage
handler for contractor Service Air fell asleep in an empty cargo
bin on board the plane.
Every cargo bin is supposed to be checked before takeoff. Maybe
this one wasn't, or maybe that's exactly what the worker was doing
when overtaken by slumber. Either way, the authorities are not
amused in the way that only the authorities can be.
The baggage handler and
managers from Spirit and Service Air now have a lot of 'splaining
to do, to the Port Authority police and the TSA.
It's not the first time this year for either type of stowaway;
a few months ago a baggage handler was inside the
bay of a jetliner when the door closed behind him. He
was quite a surprise for the handlers on the other end, but none
the worse for the cold journey (the baggage compartment on most
jets is pressurized but not heated). The airline flew him back to
his starting point -- this time, in a seat in the cabin.
Unfortunately, a wheel-well stowaway ended, as is all too common,
tragically. In May a Chinese boy fell to his death
from an airplane taking off in Dunhuang.
People have attempted to stow away in aircraft wheel wells for
at least 40 years -- We've been reading about them that long,
anyway. Although someone who doesn't quite fit the profile tries it
for sport occasionally, most such attempts begin where people are
poor and desperate.
Many of them may not understand that normal airline cruising
altitudes are higher than the fabled "Death Zone" of Everest, which
is only attempted by the fittest and bravest mountaineers (and
then, most of them are on oxygen). At 8000 meters (26,000 feet) and
above, no human can acclimatize to the ambient pressure (and low
partial pressure of oxygen); unconsciousness and death will result
in time. The amount of time depends on the condition of the
A search through the Aero-News archives for keyword "stowaway"
shows that there are a number of strategies, ranging from the
inspired to the suicidal, with frequent excursions into the Land of
Just Plain Weird:
* In November, 2004, Canadian Neil Melly couldn't fly to
Australia because his credit card was overdrawn. He caught the next
day's flight, or tried to; the Qantas jet stopped when the crew
learned that somebody was in the wheelwell. When ground workers
came to pull Melly out, they didn't grab him by his clothing, for
the simple reason that he wasn't wearing any. Yep, he was going to
take a 15+ hour nonstop at 30,000 feet and 40 degrees below zero
wearing nothing but a facial expression. I know Canadians pride themselves on
standing up to cold winters, but this is
* In August, 2004, a Cuban woman DHL'd
herself to Miami in a crate.
* In March, 2004, a wheel well rider who survived a flight from
the Dominican Republic to Miami and miraculously survived, wound up
getting no benefit for the terrible risk he took: he was deported
* On Christmas Day, 2003, American Airlines workers found a very
deceased stowaway in the wheel wells of an Airbus A300. He may have been dead for several
* In September, 2003, Charles McKinley (mugshot) is one of the
most well-known stowaways. As a prank, he says, he UPSed himself from his
workplace in Newark to his parents' home in Dallas.
After traveling cross-country on freight carriers (TSA rules
prevented the package he was in from traveling on passenger
flights... and nobody even gave him a little foil bag of
Unfortunately for McKinley, he had outstanding warrants in
Texas, and he was immediately arrested. He was also subsequently
charged as a stowaway (a Federal misdemeanor). In February, 2004, he was sentenced to house
arrest and a fine.
* In January, 2003, a disoriented man simply climbed aboard an
ATA jet in Tampa and took a seat. An alert mechanic tipped police and he was
* Also in January, 2003, two unidentified persons
fell to their doom from an Air France 777 on approach to
* In April, 2002, the wheel well of a DAS Air Cargo
jet at London Heathrow yielded a cold-soaked, frozen body, an
apparent stowaway from Africa.
In January, 2000, Rawson Watson stowed away behind
the insulation in a British Airways 767. He wasn't
just looking to stowaway; he stole currency from a shipment from
Spain to Britain, and packed himself and his stolen goods into a
case, which unfortunately broke open. At least he went to prison
knowing he could bear being locked up in small places.