It never fails. Hollywood depicts someone stowing away in the wheel well of an airplane in order to get to wherever it is the other characters in the film are heading to save the world. Unfortunately, the allure of stowing away and hitching a free ride in a plane isn’t as far fetched as one might imagine.
In the past month, London has seen two unsuccessful airplane stowaways meet their fate during their flight. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration reports that 76% of stowaway attempts end in the demise of the unlisted passenger. This demise is typically the result of one or more fairly gruesome hazards that go along with hanging out in the wheel well of an aircraft.
For one, it’s very easy to become crushed inside a wheel well. The wheels on an airplane have a complex support structure that folds and expands without warning to anyone in the bay. If you don’t know what you’re doing, or simply don’t fit in the spaces required for survival of the extension or retraction of the wheels, you’re likely to become crushed and meet an untimely end without any way to call for help.
Another issue with hitching a ride in the baggage or wheel well area of an aircraft is that these areas are rarely pressurized and climate controlled. At just 18,000 feet, the air pressure changes so much that you are likely to become light headed and suffer visual impairment and weakness. This is a bad way to be when the wheels open up without warning and you find yourself hanging on for dear life.
If you happen to hitch a ride on a flight heading above 33,000 feet (typical for commercial flights) then the chances of survival reach near zero as your lungs will require assistance to operate. This assistance would be hard to self-administer as you’ll have most likely passed out well before then.
In fact, it can reach temperatures of -81 Fahrenheit at that altitude. Many stowaways die from freezing to death before the air pressure changes cease proper lung operation. That’s not a pleasant way to go, I’d imagine.
You have better odds putting your life savings on a column at the roulette table.
There are some cases of folks surviving these tips. The heat on the wheels combined with some of the preserving qualities of low-temperature environments may in fact keep your organs alive long enough to keep you alive during the peak of flight. Your gradual descent would warm the wheel well enough to slowly bring you back from the effects of high-altitude flight. In these cases, survivors are usually found in a barely-conscious state after landing in need of medical attention. This only accounts for 24% of the recorded stowaway cases, however.
Before planning a free trip to a far-away place, consider the safer alternative. Ask someone to buy you a ticket. Being turned down is still a lot safer than tempting fate in a place no human is intended to be.