Stowaway Teen Survives 5-Hour Flight

Reached 38,000 feet

Apr 21, 2014
Outside Magazine

Traveling from San Jose to Honolulu in a wheel well is just plane stupid.    CBS This Morning/YouTube

Most threats of running away from home are idle, but a California boy went to great heights to prove he was serious.

Early Sunday morning, the 16-year-old hopped a fence at San Jose International Airport in the wake of a family argument and stowed himself in the wheel well of a Maui-bound Boeing 767. He successfully avoided detection, and his flight of fancy became a reality—though he doesn't remember most of the five-and-a-half hour trip.

As the plane approached 38,000 feet, a combination of cold temperatures and lack of oxygen lulled him into new levels of unconsciousness. 

"It's amazing that he survived," FBI spokesman Tom Simon told the Associated Press. "Kid's lucky to be alive."

Outdoor temperatures at that altitude can drop as low as -65 degrees, but the Federal Aviation Administration explains high-altitude survival in this way:

"The presence of warm hydraulic lines in the wheel well and the initially warm tires provided significant heat. … 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."

While he is not the first wheel-well stowaway to successfully complete a flight, the FAA reports that more than 75 percent of attempts end in deaths.  

The boy, who woke and emerged from the wheel well an hour after landing, was questioned by the FBI when he was found walking about the tarmac with no identification. Despite appearing unharmed, he was quickly loaded into an ambulance. 

He has not been charged with a crime, though San Jose police are still weighing charges.