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Pilot: Stowaway teen got ride of his life

By Les Abend
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pilot Les Abend was incredulous that a teen could access and survive flight in wheel well
  • He says when pilot completes preflight walk-around, he checks fuel lines, not for stowaways
  • He asks: He was not crushed when wheels retracted. How? After that, he got ride of life
  • Abend: Plane climbs 2,000 feet per minute. With cold, low oxygen, teen survived on luck

Editor's note: Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 29 years of flying experience. He is a senior contributor to Flying magazine, a worldwide publication in print for more than 75 years. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Like the rest of the world, when I learned about the teenage stowaway who climbed into the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines 767 in San Jose bound for Maui, I shook my head. Really? What kind of hoax is this? And then security cameras captured him at both airports. You've got to be kidding. From an airline pilot's perspective, this leaves me incredulous.

First of all, how did the kid get in? According to news reports, he would have had to get over a 6- to 8-foot fence with three strands of barbed wire to reach the plane at Mineta San Jose International Airport. Granted, it was dark, but he went undetected as he walked right to the airplane.

Les Abend
Les Abend

Apparently nobody was monitoring CCTV when he clambered up the cumbersome apparatus of the landing gear. Ground personnel saw nothing unusual nor did the pilot who completed the walk-around inspection just before departure.

Before taking off, we pilots look in the wheel well area to check for fluid leaks, or lines and hoses that seem out of place. Our detailed glances are not searching for stowaways. It's just not in our psyche to consider such things in a wheel well. It might be now. Of course, this kind of stowaway has happened before, with very limited success. But in 30 years with my airline, it's not something I have experienced.

Stowaway raised questions about airport security

Let's just assume that this young man was not exactly showing keen intelligence to have even conceived this run-away-from-home plot. Still, how did he find just the right spot to hide where 3,000 PSI of hydraulic pressure wouldn't crush him like a bug against a windshield? Luck is my only answer.

How stowaway could hide in wheel well
Can anyone survive in a plane's wheel well?
How a stowaway survived a 5-hour flight

And once the airplane becomes airborne, this 16-year-old was in for the ride of his life, literally. The 767 can climb at 2,000 feet per minute for most of its ascent, about 20 minutes until reaching cruise altitude. In this case, my understanding is that cruise altitude was 38,000 feet. Perhaps some of the oxygen pressure in his hiding place was maintained by the seal of the gear doors, but it wouldn't have lasted long at an adequate level, certainly not 5½ hours.

And how about the temperature? My guess is that the outside air would have been in the range of -60F to -40F, not exactly a comfortable environment, let alone survivable. Perhaps the heat of the landing gear brakes kept the wheel well area warm for a time.

5 stowaway attempts that didn't end tragically

It helped that the teen apparently lost consciousness. But with the landing gear being activated during the approach into Maui, how did he not fall to his death if he wasn't holding on to some part of the airplane structure?

Bottom line? This is an amazing story of survival. But I wouldn't give this kid an award. I'd send him to bed without supper.

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