Stowaway found in wheel well after 7 flights

Keith Sapsford, the 14-year-old boy who fell out of a Japan Airlines jet as it took off from Sydney in February 1970.
Keith Sapsford, the 14-year-old boy who fell out of a Japan Airlines jet as it took off from Sydney in February 1970.
Moscow - A man who died while flying in the wheel well of a Russian charter plane is shining a spotlight on the issue of airplane stowaways and, by extension, routine maintenance and pre-flight inspections, NBCNews reports.

On the 6th of June the body of a young man carrying a Georgian Passport was discovered on an i-Fly charter flight after it landed at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport. Maintenance workers spotted blood stains on one of the main landing gear struts, raising the alarm.

It is suspected the deceased flew in the wheel well on at least seven flights before being discovered as an autopsy reveals he froze to death four days previously. Despite this it remains unknown where he initially boarded the flight.

According to Rob Lovitt stowaway's that are undiscovered for multiple flights happen to be an anomaly - but they continue to represent an ongoing challenge for airlines.

Most recent incidents include Jose Matada of Mozambique who fell 2 000 feet to his death on a residential street in Mortlake when a Heathrow-bound jet opened its landing-gear doors as well as the body of a man found in the landing gear of a British Airways Boeing 747 which arrived at Heathrow on a flight from Cape Town. This resulted in all international flights out of Cape Town International Airport after sunset being escorted before take-off.

The most horrifying case was captured by John Gilpin, an amateur photographer in Australia when a 14-year-old boy fell out of a Japan Airlines jet as it took off from Sydney in February 1970.

Statistics maintained by Dr Stephen Veronneau, a research medical officer at FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, show there have been 99 cases worldwide of individuals stowing away in airplane wheel wells since 1947, including the June 6 incident. Of those, 76 have proven fatal - which means 23 people have actually survived.

“Unfortunately, this sort of thing has been happening for years and years and years,” said Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot for a major US carrier and founder of “It almost always involves somebody coming from a developing country.”

The dangers range from the mechanical — massive moving parts in confined spaces — to the physiological impacts of flying in unheated, unpressurized compartments at high altitudes. According to FAA, the temperature at 30 000 feet is typically around -48°F and air pressure is roughly 70 percent lower than at sea level.

“Even if they’re not crushed to death by the machinery, they’re subjected to sub-freezing temperatures and no oxygen,” Smith told NBC News. “There’s almost no chance of survival.”

As for a stowaway going undiscovered for multiple flights, Smith says that that, too, isn’t surprising.

“Walk around inspections, which are done by maintenance personnel and flightcrew members, do include a check of the landing-gear bays but there’s so much plumbing and machinery in there that every nook and cranny isn’t necessarily visible,” he said.

“If you’ve ever stood under the wheel well of a widebody jet, you can understand how it could happen.”

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