Since commercial airlines began transporting fare-paying passengers across international borders, there have been individuals willing to risk their lives to covertly exploit these flights, often to escape corruption, warfare and famine. Illustrating the problem, this February, two Ecuadorian teenagers fell to their deaths from the wheel well of a Latam Airlines flight departing Guayaquil for New York and, in Nairobi, the frozen corpse of a Congolese man was found in the wheel bay of a Kenya Airways flight that had just arrived from Kinshasa. Alexandra James discusses the issue of stowaways, and the measures that must be taken to prevent more lives from being lost – and to stop the same vulnerabilities from being exploited by those with more sinister intentions.
The first recorded wheel well stowaway incident was in 1946 and involved a 12-year-old Indonesian orphan named Bas Wie. Bas was working in the kitchens at Kupang Airport in exchange for food when he decided to sneak onto the tarmac and climb into the wheel well of a Dutch DC-3 bound for Darwin, Australia. Miraculously, the boy survived the three-hour journey, despite receiving burns and a serious injury to his shoulder blade. Upon discovering the boy, the Australian authorities initially intended to deport him back to Penang. However, Bas quickly proved to be likeable and a good student, and received immense support from the public and press, which led to him being adopted and granted permanent citizenship. He eventually found a job, married and raised a family of his own. Regrettably, the story of the modern day stowaway is not such a happy one; few are fortunate to survive the journey, let alone manage to settle and make a life for themselves in their chosen destination.
The majority of recorded stowaways are males between the ages of 13 and 35. They are usually impoverished citizens of developing countries experiencing significant socio-political issues, and who attempt to reach Western or more developed countries in a desperate bid to escape their current circumstances. One incident in particular served to highlight to the world the desperate situation of children in Guinea: the bodies of Yanguine Koita, 15, and Fodé Tounkara, 14, were found in the rear right wheel well of a Sabena flight from Guinea to Belgium in 1999. The pair were found to be carrying a letter in broken French that emphasised the plight of children in Africa and that pleaded with European authorities to intervene: ‘If you see that we have sacrificed ourselves and risked our lives, this is because we suffer too much in Africa and that we need you to fight against poverty and to put an end to the war in Africa.’
“…If you see that we have sacrificed ourselves and risked our lives, this is because we suffer too much in Africa and that we need you to fight against poverty and to put an end to the war in Africa…”
To date, 123 stowaway attempts have been reported internationally on 107 different flights, including the most recent incidents involving the two Ecuadorian teenagers who died in their attempt to get to New York at the end of February, and the as-yet-unidentified Congolese man who was discovered dead in the wheel well of a Kenyan Airlines arriving in Nairobi from Kinshasa on 11 February. Tragically, the majority of attempts end in fatalities; of the 123 attempts recorded, only around 20% made it to their destination alive (usually only to be deported back again). But of course, as the US Federal Aviation Administration noted in their 1996 report on the subject, it is quite likely that other cases have gone unreported. These could include successful cases in which individuals have made it to their destination undetected (perhaps with the help of an insider) or unsuccessful ones in which the stowaways’ bodies have fallen from the aircraft as the landing gears were lowered over remote areas or the ocean.
What are the Risks?
As well as the risks of falling out or being crushed by the landing gear during take-off, those travelling in the unpressurised wheel well of an aircraft are exposed to temperatures of around -60 degrees Celsius (-76 degrees Fahrenheit). This extreme cold leads to hypothermia, the symptoms of which can include shivering, shallow breathing, confusion, a lack of coordination and eventually loss of consciousness (the bodies of several stowaways, including the most recent in Kenya, were reported to have been literally ‘frozen’ upon discovery). As well as hypothermia, hypoxia caused by a lack of oxygen pressure is a leading cause of death among stowaways. Hypoxia is the result of reduced oxygen reaching the tissues of the body, which can cause disorientation, hallucinations, headaches and loss of consciousness. The dramatic change of pressure can also lead to decompression sickness, extreme nosebleeds, and even nitrogen gas embolisms – nitrogen gas bubbles forming in the blood vessels, sometimes causing stroke or cardiac arrest.
Factors Aiding Survival
As an aircraft takes off and lands, the movement of the tyres on the tarmac produces a substantial amount of friction, which can heat up the wheel well (most aircraft are fitted with heat sensors to detect overheating in order to avoid fires). While this heat could pose a significant risk of burning, it is also thought to help improve the conditions inside the wheel well for a short amount of time after take-off. Additionally, on most aircraft models used for commercial flights, the stowaway is slightly protected from the harsh outside elements by flaps that cover the wheel well for the majority of the flight. While these do not affect the air pressure, it may help to slow down the loss of heat from tyre friction and protect the stowaway from the wind.
“…as well as the risks of falling out or being crushed by the landing gear during take-off or landing, those travelling in the unpressurised wheel well of an aircraft are exposed to temperatures of around -60 degrees Celsius…”
Survival may also be aided by certain other features of the aircraft. For example, last year, Emmanuel Ugochukwu successfully made the 12-hour flight from Lagos to London. The industry was initially baffled as to how he managed to defeat the odds and survive such a long journey inside the wheel well. It later transpired that he hadn’t – he had actually stowed away inside a pressurised compartment unique to the B747 where engineers store their spare parts and tools.
Another lucky stowaway, 17-year-old Cuban national, Armando Socarras Ramirez, managed to survive a flight from Havana to Madrid in 1969. His survival was attributed to three conditions: firstly, the pilot maintained a relatively low altitude of 29,000 feet (roughly the same height as the summit of Everest), which slightly increased pressure and oxygen levels; secondly, the temperature was slightly raised in the wheel well due to a small amount of heat produced by tyre friction and hydraulic fluid lines passing through the chamber. Thirdly, it is thought that Ramirez entered what is known as ‘poikilothermia’, a kind of hibernation state in which many bodily functions, including brain activity, are shut down, allowing the body to survive on limited blood flow and oxygen. It is thought the majority of successful stowaways survive in this way as many report losing consciousness during the flight.
During another flight in 2002, Cuban national, Victor Alvarez Molina, aged 22, successfully made the four-hour journey from Cuba to Montreal. It is believed he survived the -55 degree temperature because a heat pipe passing through the wheel well had broken, leaking warm air and providing Molina with something to hold onto as the landing gears lowered. Molina was one of very few stowaways who received refugee status.
“…if an illegal immigrant is capable of climbing into an aircraft wheel well undetected, then so is a terrorist …”
Short of changing the social conditions that make an individual choose to risk their life in the first place, what can or should the industry be doing in order to prevent further incidents? The obvious answer in most cases is reinforcing perimeter security. Stowaways aside for a moment, in almost every issue of this journal, Air Watch features at least one instance of a perimeter breach. All too often, the incidents go completely unnoticed until either a further offence is being committed (as seems to happen on a regular basis in Lagos where multiple cases of theft from aircraft cargo holds during taxiing are being reported) or worse, as happened during a diamond heist at Belgium in 2013, the assailants leave through the same hole in the fence they used to get in. Another similar incident occurred on 4 March this year at Virocopos Airport in Brazil, where a group of five gunmen needed no longer than six minutes to cut through the perimeter fence, access the runway in a disguised van and help themselves to $5 million in cash that was being loaded onto a Lufthansa flight bound for Switzerland.
Increased perimeter security can be achieved via measures such as enhanced fencing, automatic intruder detection and surveillance via thermal CCTV, video analytics and security patrols. But of course, implementing these measures have major financial implications and, as we know, the areas that have the highest risk of stowaways are areas that have particularly limited resources. Some airports and airlines operating in known high-risk locations closely observe aircraft for as long as they are on the ground. Security personnel are often posted underneath the aircraft while it is on the stand to monitor all potential access points, and ‘Follow Me’ marshal vehicles are deployed to chaperone aircraft during taxiing. This can be a highly effective method of prevention (in combination with standard pre-flight checks performed by air crew that include the wheel well areas) but, again, is only realistic at locations where available resources can cope with traffic volumes.
Other solutions could include devices that are installed within the aircraft itself. Most small aircraft are fitted with devices that record when service hatches and other access points were last opened. On larger civilian aircraft performing more regular flights, however, this system is not practical since maintenance takes place so frequently. I asked a member of the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) whether wheel well intruder sensors were a viable option:
“…Ramirez entered what is known as ‘poikilothermia’, a kind of hibernation state in which many bodily functions, including brain activity, are shut down, allowing the body to survive on limited blood flow and oxygen…”
“It really depends on what it is you are trying to identify. A motion sensor would be useless as you have lots of moving parts in a wheel well. We already have heat gauges, but you couldn’t use that to identify an intruder as you regularly have huge fluctuations in temperature. You would have alarms going off all the time, and you would be constantly resolving false positives.”
And, of course, there is also the insider threat to consider – those either aiding individuals to stow onto an aircraft or stowing onto one themselves. Last year, Michael Bamiro, a security guard working with ALMN Security at Murtala Muhammed International, Lagos, was imprisoned for assisting Emmanuel Ugochukwu, the aforementioned stowaway on a Med View flight to London (but who accidentally endured a return flight because there wasn’t an opportunity to leave the aircraft in London without being seen). In connection with this incident, Ugochukwu faced charges of ‘suicide’, which carries a lifetime sentence. In this case, the industry was fortunate that Michael Bamiro assisted Ugochukwu and not a genuinely suicidal individual intent on causing harm to others, as well as himself.
While a stowaway is unlikely to cause any problems to a flight or its passengers, let us not forget that this is not just a social responsibility issue, but a security vulnerability too; if an illegal immigrant is capable of climbing into an aircraft wheel well undetected, then so is a terrorist. If a desperate individual is capable of convincing an airport or airline worker to help conceal them in the tools and spare parts compartment on a flight to London, then so is a terrorist. As well as ensuring perimeter security is as effective as it can be, airlines and airports need to ensure that staff access is tightly regulated through appropriate access control, deterrent measures and through a rigorous security culture. I, for one, wonder who number 124 will be, which airline they will select, and which airport they will depart from.
Alexandra James is the sub-editor of ASI and regular compiler of Air Watch. She is also a trainer in unruly passenger management for Green Light Ltd. and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.