Boy Survives Flight in Jet’s Wheel Well

UNITED STATES

How do you live through a voyage when the temperature drops to more than 50 degrees below zero and the air is thinner than that at the top of Mount Everest? You usually don’t. (NPR)

Use our resources to understand altitude, air pressure, and their impact on the human body.

New climate models suggest "clear-air turbulence" could be rocking and rolling the skies in the near future. Photograph by Michael Walker

An unidentified 15-year-old boy reportedly ran away from his Santa Clara, California, home on Sunday after an argument with his family. He hopped a fence at nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport, security video later revealed, and climbed into the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines jet. FBI Special Agent Tom Simon says he was “just a runaway kid with a bad idea.” Luckily, not a fatal one—the boy survived the 5-hour flight to Hawaii.
Photograph by Michael Walker, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • The NPR blog post says wheel-well stowaways are likely to freeze to death or die from lack of oxygen (a condition called hypoxia). But the flight from California to Hawaii took place entirely in a warm, temperate climate zone. So, why would freezing temperatures or lack of oxygen be a concern in this case? Would it make a difference if the wheel-well stowaway was taking a flight from Greenland to Alaska? Read our very short encyclopedic entry on “altitude” for some help.
    • Both the freezing temperature and lack of oxygen have to do with air pressure, which decreases as a plane’s altitude increases. In higher altitudes, there are simply fewer gas molecules (including oxygen) bumping into each other. This creates a much colder atmosphere, and one where your lungs have to work really hard to get enough oxygen to breathe.
    • Yes, it would make a huge difference if wheel-well stowaways took flights close to the poles. (Take a look at this list of wheel-well stowaways. All the flights are in temperate or even tropical latitudes.) This is because air pressure decreases near the poles.  At high altitudes, air pressure decreases even further. Even though the plane may be flying at the same altitude near the pole as near the Equator, the decreased air pressure near the poles means it would be even colder, with even thinner air (less oxygen) than a flight nearer the tropics. A wheel-well stowaway going from Greenland to Alaska wouldn’t stand a chance.

 

  • Besides ill-advised wheel-well stowaways, who else might face the dangers of altitude sickness?
    • Mountaineers, mostly. According to our encyclopedic entry, “[i]t can take days and even weeks for a body to adjust to high altitude and low air pressure.” Even after adjusting to high altitudes (usually defined as about 2,400 meters (8,000 feet)), mountaineers bring warm climbing gear and canisters of oxygen to compensate for the freezing temperatures and thin air of the so-called “death zone.”

 

  • Why aren’t people inside airplanes threatened with altitude sickness?
    • The plane’s cabin is pressurized. This means that oxygen-rich air is pumped and circulated through the plane’s cabin.

 

  • NPR has done a great job covering this story. Their latest update says the wheel-well stowaway was “just a runaway kid with a bad idea.” The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) usually does not get involved in runaway-kid cases. Why are they investigating this one?
    • Two reasons. First, the kid crossed state lines—and half of the Pacific Ocean. The FBI, a federal agency, is often called in when a case exceeds the jurisdiction of a single state (here, California or Hawaii).
    • Second, this kid was able to “hop a fence” and jump into a plane at a major international airport without being detected. (The rest of us have to buy a ticket, take off our shoes, stand in lines, present two forms of ID, have our luggage examined . . . ) This is a major, major security breach, and the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) at Mineta San Jose International Airport has a lot of explaining to do.

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