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Updated 19 June 2015

Why plane stowaways die

Stowing away on a plane - a ticket to freedom or suicide? Here's why it kills people.

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News24 reports that a stowaway has fallen to his death onto a London office block after clinging to a passenger plane that flew more than 12 000km from Johannesburg to London. His accomplice survived the grueling flight and is in hospital in a serious condition. 

Stowaways on boats or trucks often die from lack of oxygen or from dehydration. Those on planes usually have a far quicker exit. Few people know how inhospitable conditions can be 10 000 metres up in the air.

Why do almost none of these plane stowaways survive?

  • The hiding place is unsafe. Most stowaways hide in the wheel wells of aeroplanes. This is the area near to the wing recess where the landing gear retracts. Most wheel wells have enough space for a small adult to crawl into and hide. Access is gained when the plane is stationary.

    A stowaway would climb the landing gear into the area where the wheel retracts. Once the plane takes off a stowaway is protected by metal coverings that close over the wheel well opening. But if the landing gear does not retract properly the pilot will keep trying until it does. This could lead to the stowaway being crushed.

    If there isn't enough space to hide in the undercarriage wells, the person will also be crushed as the wheels come up. 
  • Wheel wells are not pressurised. As the plane ascends, there is a corresponding drop in atmospheric pressure. Because the wheel wells are not pressurised (as the inside of the plane is), there is a lack of oxygen. Decompression sickness occurs when pressure surrounding the body is reduced.

    Nitrogen gas bubbles form in the bloodstream and tissue fluids. This causes pain in muscles and joints and can damage tissue, nerves and organs. Divers who surface too quickly also suffer from decompression sickness.
     
  • No air and no heat. A stowaway faces two life-threatening conditions: hypoxia and hypothermia. Hypoxia occurs because of a lack of oxygen. Hypothermia occurs when there is a drop in the core body temperature to below 32 degrees Celsius. The body is unable to perform normal functions.

    This results in unconsciousness and if the temperature remains freezing, death will follow. At such high altitudes it is extremely cold - colder than most people will ever experience - and the temperature could fall to minus 45 degrees Celsius. It is more or less impossible to survive this kind of cold without adequate gear.
     
  • Fall to pieces. A stowaway can plunge to death when the landing gear is lowered. Landing gear is lowered well before landing – sometimes a few hundred metres - and if there is nothing to hold on to, preventing a fall would be difficult.

    It is thought that many stowaways on planes are never discovered, because they fall out before planes land. Lack of oxygen also causes blackouts, rendering stowaways unconscious and unable to do anything for themselves.

Watch: CNN's Gary Tauchman explains how a stowaway could hide in plane's wheel well


Sources: Flightsafety.org

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