Teen survives 5.5-hour flight in jet's wheel well

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by John Bacon, USA TODAY

KING5.com

Posted on April 21, 2014 at 7:18 AM

Updated Monday, Apr 21 at 5:31 PM

The FBI is calling it a "miracle" and the airline says a teen who hopped the fence at a San Jose airport is "lucky to have survived" a 5½-hour flight to Maui — in the wheel well of a Boeing 767.

The 16-year-old stowaway survived temperatures as low as 80 degrees below zero and the thin air available at 38,000 feet, FBI spokesman Tom Simon said.

"He was unconscious for the lion's share of the flight," said Simon. "Kid's lucky to be alive."

Security video indicated the teen was able to breach San Jose's Mineta International Airport security and climb undetected into the wheel well of Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45.

Howard Mell, a Cleveland area emergency physician who is a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, tried to put together a case for survival.

"We have no idea what the temperature inside the wheel well would be," Mell said. "We certainly see people survive the night at 10 degrees."

But survival with the very low oxygen at the altitude reported for the plane is harder to explain, he says.

"I'm not saying he couldn't have done it because apparently he could," Mell says, citing the before-and-after videos. But, he says, "from the standpoint of science, this is a very lucky child… It would be extremely ill advised for anyone to try to duplicate his feat."

The FAA says it has been done before. Its data cites two cases of high altitude flight by stowaways, one from Havana, Cuba to Madrid and from Bogota, Colombia, to Miami. The flights reached at about 35,000 feet with outdoor temps as low as -65 degrees.

"The presence of warm hydraulic lines in the wheel-well and the initially warm tires provided significant heat," the FAA report says. "The stable climb of the aircraft enabled hypoxia to lead to gradual unconsciousness. As the wheel-well environment slowly cooled, hypothermia accompanies the deep hypoxia, preserving nervous system viability."

As the plane slowly descends, the air warms and oxygen pressure increases. Upon landing, "individuals were found in a semi-conscious state, and, upon treatment, recovered."

But the FAA report notes that numerous "copycat" attempts have ended in death. There were 95 attempted stowaways on 84 flights around the world from 1996 to August 2012, the FAA says. More than 75% of those attempts resulted in deaths.

Simon said the teen ran away from his family and to the airport after an argument. The teen apparently slept through the flight, awaking about an hour after it landed and then hopping onto the tarmac in Maui.

"Our primary concern now is for the well-being of the boy, who is exceptionally lucky to have survived," Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Alison Croyle said in a statement.

Simon said the boy, who is not being identified, appeared to be unharmed. He was released to child protective services and not charged with a crime, Simon said. Police in San Jose, however, say they are weighing charges against the 16-year-old stowaway.

Authorities agree the youth defied all odds.

"How he survived I don't know," Simon told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a miracle."

Contributing: Kim Painter, Jolie Lee; Associated Press

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