Travel | November 29, 2021 2:02 pm

Airplane Stowaways Are a Very Real, Very Dangerous Thing

A 26-year old man emerged from an aircraft's landing gear in Miami on Saturday. He's one of a select few who have ever survived such a trip.

Airplane Stowaways Are a Very Real, Very Dangerous Thing
Victoria Primak/Unsplash

A 26-year old man from Guatemala is making headlines after he was found in an aircraft’s landing gear shortly after its arrival at Miami International Airport on Saturday.

Per a statement from a spokesperson, American Airlines flight 1182 “was met by law enforcement due to a security issue,” upon landing and the unidentified man was immediately apprehended by US Customs and Border Protection. He was assessed by medical personnel onsite before being whisked away to a local hospital for further evaluation.

In a video posted to social media, the man can be seen sitting on the tarmac and looking very disoriented after having spent the previous two and a half hours in the landing gear compartment. Astonishingly, he’s far from the first person to attempt the stunt. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 129 people have attempted to stowaway in various areas of aircraft since 1947. Only 29 have survived the trip.

According to a 2019 report from CNN, the risks stowaways face are numerous. To start, during a flight, temperatures outside of the plane often drop as low as 80 degrees below zero, which puts the stowaway at risk of both frostbite and hypothermia. In 2003, after a body was found in a wheel-well at JFK, Brendan Koerner wrote of one survivor who’s body temperature was just 79 degrees when found — six degrees colder than what’s typically considered fatal. And if the cold doesn’t get to them, stowaways often succumb to asphyxiation, as oxygen levels become dangerously low as the aircraft reaches high altitudes. Others are crushed when the landing gear is loaded in, or fall from the aircraft mid-flight. In 2019, a stowaway fell from a plane flying over London into a residential garden, just feet away from a man who had been sunbathing.

“People lose consciousness because of lack of oxygen or hypothermia or any of those things,” former American Airlines pilot Wayne Ziskal told NBC Miami. “And when the gear comes back down, they fall out, they’re not wedged in properly, or don’t hold on to something properly, and they fall out of the airplane to their death usually. It’s a very tragic thing.”

Of course, there are a handful of success stories. In 2000, a 24-year-old survived 14 hours inside a cargo container on a flight from Havana, Cuba, to Paris. Fourteen years later, a 15-year old boy searching for his mother survived a trip in from San Jose to Maui in the wheel-well.

That said, they are very obviously the exception. Generally, stowaways are fleeing poverty and desperately in need of refuge. The phenomenon, if nothing else, is illustrative of the fact that they’re willing to risk it all — i.e., an 88% mortality rate — for the opportunity to start anew.