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Transportation

Experts Say Hitching a Ride In an Airliner's Wheel Well Is Not a Good Idea 239

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the don't-forget-your-jacket dept.
Hugh Pickens DOT Com (2995471) writes "Hasani Gittens reports that as miraculous as it was that a 16-year-old California boy was able to hitch a ride from San Jose to Hawaii and survive, it isn't the first time a wheel-well stowaway has lived to tell about it. The FAA says that since 1947 there have been 105 people who have tried to surreptitiously travel in plane landing gear — with a survival rate of about 25 percent. But agency adds that the actual numbers are probably higher, as some survivors may have escaped unnoticed, and bodies could fall into the ocean undetected. Except for the occasional happy ending, hiding in the landing gear of a aircraft as it soars miles above the Earth is generally a losing proposition. According to an FAA/Wright State University study titled 'Survival at High Altitudes: Wheel-Well Passengers,' at 20,000 feet the temperature experienced by a stowaway would be -13 F, at 30,000 it would be -45 in the wheel well — and at 40,000 feet, the mercury plunges to a deadly -85 F (PDF). 'You're dealing with an incredibly harsh environment,' says aviation and security expert Anthony Roman. 'Temperatures can reach -50 F, and oxygen levels there are barely sustainable for life.' Even if a strong-bodied individual is lucky enough to stand the cold and the lack of oxygen, there's still the issue of falling out of the plane. 'It's almost impossible not to get thrown out when the gear opens,' says Roman.

So how do the lucky one-in-four survive? The answer, surprisingly, is that a few factors of human physiology are at play: As the aircraft climbs, the body enters a state of hypoxia—that is, it lacks oxygen—and the person passes out. At the same time, the frigid temperatures cause a state of hypothermia, which preserves the nervous system. 'It's similar to a young kid who falls to the bottom of an icy lake," says Roman. "and two hours later he survives, because he was so cold.'"
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Experts Say Hitching a Ride In an Airliner's Wheel Well Is Not a Good Idea

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  • by BitterOak (537666) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @01:57AM (#46813037)
    I'm glad the "experts" cleared that up for me. I guess I'll have to change my vacation plans!
    • Now I'm waiting for a community service announcement like this one in an old episode of The Young Ones [youtube.com]. Fast forward to 5:07 :

      "The BBC would like to warn all small children that pushing people inside old fridges is a bloody stupid thing to do."

    • by mysidia (191772)

      I'm glad the "experts" cleared that up for me. I guess I'll have to change my vacation plans!

      Yeah... I'll have to remember to bring my coat, and extra bungee cords and parachute..

    • I guess the memo had a misspelling. The wheel wells seem to be a good place for terrorists, not for tourists.

      If someone can sneak up to the plane and climb in, it should be equally easy to put a bomb there. If a 16-year-old can find a way to squeeze into that space, it wouldn't be too difficult to fit in a couple hundred pounds of explosives.

      • If a 16-year-old can find a way to squeeze into that space, it wouldn't be too difficult to fit in a couple hundred pounds of explosives.

        Would you even need that much? Some thermite wrapped around a critical linkage, and the best the plane can do is belly-flop onto the tarmac.

    • Me too. After reading this:

      As the aircraft climbs, the body enters a state of hypoxiaâ"that is, it lacks oxygenâ"and the person passes out. At the same time, the frigid temperatures cause a state of hypothermia, which preserves the nervous system. 'It's similar to a young kid who falls to the bottom of an icy lake," says Roman. "and two hours later he survives, because he was so cold.'"

      I'll never fly coach again! The wheel-well appears to be way more comfortable!

    • by NIK282000 (737852)

      They go on to say that you should not set yourself on fire or enjoy a nice hot cup of bleach on a cold day.

  • by GrahamCox (741991) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @01:59AM (#46813051) Homepage
    Never mind the lack of oxygen and the cold, what about simply getting crushed when the gear is retracted? That's game over at 200 ft.
    • by Wycliffe (116160)

      I think the obvious thing missing is the two giant elephants in the room.

      1) If a 15 year old boy can do this so can someone with a bomb. Where are the cameras and the
      security guards watching the cameras. It's much easier to find someone to plant a bomb on a plane
      if they don't also have to be a passenger. We should stop strip searching the passengers and spend
      this money on actually monitoring the runway.

      2) This is not the first time that extreme cold + lack of oxygen has caused a human to go into suspend

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:02AM (#46813053)

    i'd watch it.

  • by hogghogg (791053) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:06AM (#46813057) Homepage Journal
    If people who die in a wheel well always have their dead bodies discovered, while *some* of the people who survive a wheel-well journey don't -- they sneak out on the tarmac undetected -- then the survival rate of 25 percent must be an under-estimate, or at least is potentially an under-estimate.
    • by jarfil (1341877) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:15AM (#46813089) Homepage

      If they fall into the ocean when the gears open, many dead may have not been discovered either.

      • by aliquis (678370)

        Then again some of those may have been alive! ;D

        • Yeah, at least until they hit the water at 700km/h...
          • by multi io (640409)

            Yeah, at least until they hit the water at 700km/h...

            Eh, terminal velocity in the lower atmosphere is abound 250 km/h. Not that it would make much of a difference though.

            • Eh, terminal velocity in the lower atmosphere is abound 250 km/h.

              . . . that's cruising speed on the German Autobahn.

      • by Guppy (12314)

        The dead body undercount is potentially detectable, if someone were to compare over-water approaches with over-land approaches; if a significant number of bodies are going missing, this should show up as a skew in the survival rate.

        • by swillden (191260)
          There's a hidden assumption there: that stowaways choose destinations without regard to over-water or over-land approaches, and without some other criterion which is correlated with land vs water approaches. I have no idea if that assumption is valid.
    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @03:42AM (#46813327) Journal
      Unless you are one serious badass, you won't be in the mood for much 'sneaking' after a few hours of hypothermia and hypoxia. If your luck holds, you didn't die or get violently ejected at a lethal altitude; but you've still been in a state closer to 'amateur hibernation', not one of our strong points, than anything else. You'll probably just lie on the tarmac defrosting and then maybe try some experimental crawling.
      • by v1 (525388)

        You'll probably just lie on the tarmac defrosting and then maybe try some experimental crawling

        Better get your baby feet on pretty quickly. Big heavy things are rolling over that slab on a fairly regular basis. It's not a good place to loiter.

        Another thing this does is show just how ineffective security theatre is around airports. That could've been a large bomb strapped to that landing gear, wired to go off at 35,000 ft. Damaging the gear enough to make the plane do a cartwheel on live TV when it tries

  • by vikingpower (768921) <<exercitussolus> <at> <gmail.com>> on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:07AM (#46813065) Homepage Journal
    Mercury can't plunge to -85 degrees Fahrenheit. It solidifies at -37.8922 degrees Fahrenheit. Fail.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:23AM (#46813121)

      Mercury can't plunge to -85 degrees Fahrenheit. It solidifies at -37.8922 degrees Fahrenheit. Fail.

      -85 F is approximately 210 K. Mercury can plunge damn close [springerimages.com] to that as a liquid.

      You just need a near-vacuum.

      Somewhat ironic that you failed to consider the effect of pressure on phase, especially given this was referencing a high-altitude LOW PRESSURE scenario, but you pedantically cited the freezing point value at standard pressure.

      Ouch.

    • by cbeaudry (706335)

      I think others have replied to you already, but I will too.

      40C and 40F is the meeting point of both measurements and on a mercury thermometer it goes much lower than that point.

      You should check your facts before spouting statements with such assurance.

      • MINUS 39something, mister. You are on about PLUS 40. 79 Fahrenheit off. You should check your numbers before spouting statements with such arrogance.
  • ...that's where I'm convinced.
  • by Bryan Ischo (893) * on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:22AM (#46813119) Homepage

    Why do they bother with all of the ridiculous security protocols for airline passengers when apparently it's pretty easy to sneak a 16-year-old-kid-sized bomb into the wheel well of an aircraft on the tarmac?

    So much neater and easier than trying to sneak weapons through airport security. And the best part is, you don't have to commit suicide to take the plane down.

    Seriously, airplane security is clearly full of holes and the sham of passenger security checks is just that, a sham meant to make us 'feel' safe while wasting our time and shoveling tons of dollars to the TSA.

    • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:42AM (#46813175) Homepage Journal

      Seriously, airplane security is clearly full of holes and the sham of passenger security checks is just that, a sham meant to make us 'feel' safe while wasting our time and shoveling tons of dollars to the TSA.

      Well, any good government repression solves multiple problems, but the point of TSA is behavioral conditioning - giving away tons of money to political cronies is just a bonus.

      • by ruir (2709173)
        No it is not. The sham of passenger checking is to make sure you do not carry food and drinks, or excess weight so airlines can do their side business.
        • by gl4ss (559668)

          ..but you can buy 10 kilos+ of food and other stuff from the airport.

        • by Talderas (1212466)

          What's the last time you flew? All airports are arranged as following

          Airport -> Security Checkpoint -> Terminal -> Plane

          All airports have tons of crap for sale in the terminal, ranging from sit in restaurants, to fast food, to souveniers after you've gotten past security. This has lead me to discover some hilarious things.... like a TGI Fridays that gave you plastic forks, knives, and spoons to eat with while serving you steak. Never again, TGIF. Never again.

          • I fly business class a fair amount - and when they serve lunch/dinner I get nice, metal forks, butter knives, and serrated steak knives. All served with a smile and an "enjoy your meal sir!"

            Why worry about smuggling a knife onto a plane? Just book business/first class, enjoy yourself one last time, and then do your worst with the tools the airline graciously provided for you.

    • airplane security is clearly full of holes

      I had to reread that a few times to realize you didn't forget an 'A'.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @05:03AM (#46813471)

      You want really scary: Off the shelf 10-20kg RC Plane packed full of explosives and with an FPV system to make a simple and cheap guided missile. They can be made fast enough to keep up with a plane just after takeoff or before landing, or while it is flying in the ATC pattern. Might not even be seen at night (though I guess they have bird warning systems).

      Or what if someone lands an explosive filled drone on a taxiing plane and latches on, detonating during or after takeoff.

      With modern RC autopilots they can even be automated. Just program multicopter autopilot to go and sit stationary 10m off the middle of the runway, if you aren't moving then radar is probably unlikely to see you.

      High speed trains are even worse. No way can they guard hundreds of miles of track against anvils being tossed onto them (or bombs put in their exceptionally predictable (in both time and location) path).

      Or what if someone programs a drone to fly a nail bomb into a crowded stadium, or the Kabah during Haj. GPS means they can be launched hundreds of miles away.

      One can only come to the conclusion that either the terrorists are remarkably incompetent/unimaginative, or that they are basically non-existant, and we are wasting our time and money doing anything at all.

      • by Entropius (188861)

        If you want to make the airport folks even more paranoid, why not just set off a wheelie-suitcase containing explosives, shrapnel, and warfarin powder in the security checkpoint line?

      • by jabuzz (182671)

        I think we can accurately come to the conclusion that the current crop of fundamental Islamist terrorists are remarkably incompetent.

        For example take Richard Reid aka the "shoe bomber". Only a completely incompetent idiot tries to light a fuse in full view of everyone, rather than take the simple expediency of locking yourself in the toilet!!!

        To underline how stupid and incompetent they are the "underwear bomber" made exactly the same critical mistake.

        • by Raenex (947668)

          For example take Richard Reid aka the "shoe bomber". Only a completely incompetent idiot tries to light a fuse in full view of everyone, rather than take the simple expediency of locking yourself in the toilet!!!

          To underline how stupid and incompetent they are the "underwear bomber" made exactly the same critical mistake.

          The underwear bomber apparently spent 20 minutes in the bathroom preparing the device. I don't know why he didn't just try to light it in the bathroom. Anyways, it doesn't matter, since in both cases the devices were faulty anyways. If they had been in working order, they would have succeeded because they had sufficient time before the passengers reacted.

      • I think it is a mix of all of the above. Terrorists are rare (not quite non-existent) and are obviously incompetent and unimaginative. At most airports, one could fill an entire full-sized bus with explosives as long as it was labelled "Hertz" on the side, drive it right up to a place in front of the main terminal, and detonate it as a suicide bomber on any of the busy travel days of the year. If one wore the right uniform, one could probably get out, walk around to the off-side of the bus, jump into a g

  • by Ihlosi (895663) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:30AM (#46813137)
    1. Dress warmly. Even if the plane takes off in a tropical location. Make sure to cover exposed body parts - you don't want to pay with eary, fingers, toes or your nose for the trip.
    2. Bring oxygen (that's going to be the hard part. Several hours worth of oxygen).
    3. Familiarize yourself with various plane types so you don't get crushed by an unsuitable wheel well design.
    4. Secure yourself to the plane so you don't get thrown out during landing.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by geraud (932452)
      Your points 1. and 2. are wrong. Have you read the article ? Hypothermia and hypoxia preserve the body during the flight.
      • by swillden (191260)

        Your points 1. and 2. are wrong. Have you read the article ? Hypothermia and hypoxia preserve the body during the flight.

        More precisely, although hypothermia and hypoxia will generally kill you, once in a while you'll get lucky and they'll counter each others' fatal effects just enough that you manage not to die.

        If it was me, I'd rather ensure that I'm equipped to avoid the effects of both. Or else, you know, travel inside the plane, in the environment designed and regulated for human comfort. There are no little packets of peanuts in the wheel well, for example.

    • There is even a safer way to travel:
      1. buy a ticket and seat in the cabin
  • by Rosco P. Coltrane (209368) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:38AM (#46813167)

    What I get out of this story is that, if you're lucky enough to survive the trip in the wheel well, it's much more convenient to travel this way than doing it the regular way: no queuing, no overcharging from the airlines, no restrictions on the amounts of liquids you can carry, no getting your gonads showered with x-rays, no groping from TSA perverts... and of course, no arbitrary, secret no-fly list that prevents you from boarding the plane in the first place.

    The airport security theater almost makes me want to risk my life as a stowaway.

    • by ignavus (213578)

      What I get out of this story is that, if you're lucky enough to survive the trip in the wheel well, it's much more convenient to travel this way than doing it the regular way: no queuing, no overcharging from the airlines, no restrictions on the amounts of liquids you can carry, no getting your gonads showered with x-rays, no groping from TSA perverts... and of course, no arbitrary, secret no-fly list that prevents you from boarding the plane in the first place.

      The airport security theater almost makes me want to risk my life as a stowaway.

      And no waiting in the queue for the toilet either.

      • by Ihlosi (895663)
        And no waiting in the queue for the toilet either.

        Waiting in the queue for the toilet is prohibited. It's what terrorists do before they strike.

    • by surmak (1238244)

      What I get out of this story is that, if you're lucky enough to survive the trip in the wheel well, it's much more convenient to travel this way than doing it the regular way: no queuing, no overcharging from the airlines, no restrictions on the amounts of liquids you can carry, no getting your gonads showered with x-rays, no groping from TSA perverts... and of course, no arbitrary, secret no-fly list that prevents you from boarding the plane in the first place.

      The airport security theater almost makes me want to risk my life as a stowaway.

      I'm not sure about that. For the (surviving) wheel-well travelers, all of that unpleasantness simply comes after the flight. They may not use the backscatter X-ray machine, but I'm sure there will be a far more thorough examination than the TSA would give you, which you will receive on a regular basis. There are also far more limits on what items you can bring with you, not just liquids.

      ...and after all that, you will likely have a good idea if you are on the no-fly list. (The answer will be yes)

  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @02:55AM (#46813217)

    ... is that sick?

    So there are three factors that you need to deal with apparently.

    1. The cold.

    Solution: Get yourself a really good jacket. Something you could take to the north pole... should be enough.

    2. Lack of oxygen.

    Solution: Get yourself an O2 tank... The kind they take to Everest. Just something to supplement the air you're breathing.

    3. Falling out of the god damn airplane.

    Solution: Some basic mountaineering gear would likely do the trick. Just ropes and clamps.

    All told, what you seem to need are high altitude mountaineering gear. So, some cold weather gear, an oxygen bottle, and some ropes. Doubtless it would be a nasty ride but you'd probably survive.

    • by NoKaOi (1415755)

      The equipment you are suggesting costs quite a bit more than a plane ticket, even including the extra baggage fee and the $10 soggy sandwich.

      • Does it really though?

        The only expensive bit is the coat... lets say that's 500 to 1000 dollars and even that is if you're paying retail.

        If you want to go cheap you can probably "make" coat out of old blankets. It doesn't have to be pretty or light. You're not going to move once you're in the wheel well. You're just going to sit in there and not move. So it can be heavy and clunky. Which means in so far as a coat is concerned it can be quite light.

        Now in regards to oxygen, you're just looking for a basic ta

        • by x0ra (1249540)
          don't forget to keep your legs warm as well, it's a pretty significant source of heat loss.
        • The absolute cheapest you can buy a compressed gas tank for is about $100. I don't know how much the mask would be but I'm betting another $100.

          A ticket for the same trip is $450.

          So... yea, if YOU want to risk your life to save less than $200, go right ahead.

          • well again... and I feel like I must have said this about 5 times already... its reusable.

            So... yeah... the economy on the first trip isn't amazing. But if you make a point of doing this like some skybound hobo then your ongoing costs would be pretty low. You'd just have to refill the O2 tank between trips.

            And obviously it isn't practical to actually do this... what the fuck are you talking about? Hitching a ride in the wheel well of a commercial airliner? Fucking ridiculous. It was a stupid idea before 9/1

          • by Thud457 (234763)
            What makes you think the kind of people that are willing to stow away in an aircraft wheel well are going to pay to procure an oxygen bottle. They can just borrow one from the nearest retirement castle.
    • by mysidia (191772)

      All told, what you seem to need are high altitude mountaineering gear. So, some cold weather gear, an oxygen bottle, and some ropes. Doubtless it would be a nasty ride but you'd probably survive.

      The only thing left is about... the crushing risk. And radical sudden air pressure changes you may be exposed to.

      Also... the difficulty of getting in and escaping while carrying all this gear.

      In this heavy winter gear... you will likely stand out for sure.

      • how much more risk will there be if you run out there with nothing? It seems pretty similar.

        As to air pressure changes, that is unpleasant but not life threatening.

      • All told, what you seem to need are high altitude mountaineering gear. So, some cold weather gear, an oxygen bottle, and some ropes. Doubtless it would be a nasty ride but you'd probably survive.

        The only thing left is about... the crushing risk. And radical sudden air pressure changes you may be exposed to.

        Also... the difficulty of getting in and escaping while carrying all this gear.

        In this heavy winter gear... you will likely stand out for sure.

        Why radical, sudden pressure changes? The plane doesn't teleport to altitide, it has to fly there. A quick search led me to an airline pilots forum, where they say it generally takes 25-35 minutes to climb to cruising altitude in a 747. Doesn't seem to radical to me.

    • by ed1park (100777)

      Don't forget snacks, water, and diapers.

      • You don't need any of that to stay alive. Possibly you need it to be comfortable but that's a different story.

  • Meanwhile.. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    "Normal People Also Say Hitching a Ride In an Airliner's Wheel Well Is Not a Good Idea"

  • by Barryke (772876) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @04:44AM (#46813423) Homepage

    For those outside of Lybia, USA, and Burma:

    "at 6 km the temperature experienced by a stowaway would be -25C, at 9,1 km it would be -45 in the wheel well — and at 12,2 km, the mercury plunges to a deadly -65C (PDF). "

    20,000 feet = 6km
    40,000 feet = 12,2km
    -13F = -25C
    -85F = -65C

  • by confused one (671304) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @06:44AM (#46813699)

    Bah. You kids these days...

    Back in my day, we didn't complain about the cold and lack of oxygen. We rode in unpressurized planes with open gun ports. Sure, it was cold -- we wore fur lined jackets and liked it. Our oxygen masks smelled like engine exhaust and we were grateful. You didn't here us whine about 'being crushed by landing gear' or 'being thrown from the plane'. We were being shot at. Hell, we were lucky to have landing gear at all when we got back.

    So, stop your bitching and get off my damn lawn.

    Written for my grandfather who manned a gun in a WWII bomber.

    • by Nidi62 (1525137)

      You didn't here us whine about 'being crushed by landing gear' or 'being thrown from the plane'. We were being shot at. Hell, we were lucky to have landing gear at all when we got back.

      Written for my grandfather who manned a gun in a WWII bomber.

      Ball-turret gunners may have had some additional concerns regarding crushing.

  • Experts Say Hitching a Ride In an Airliner's Wheel Well Is Not a Good Idea

    http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20120930201320/fairytail/images/3/30/You_don't_say.png [nocookie.net]

    http://youtu.be/b6qyX1L8p_Q [youtu.be]

  • Given the physiological limitations of the human body, when I first read this story and everyone was screaming about security, I was thinking how did he survive? I've done some skydives from 30,000 feet, obviously with full O2 mask, warm clothing, etc. And been to a few chamber ride classes. Whole security thing we can argue for eternity but comment of, "frigid temperatures cause a state of hypothermia, which preserves the nervous system." Now that's interesting.

    I never would ever consider riding in a whee

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