How the Teenage Stowaway Survived a Flight to Hawaii in a Wheel Well

By Sarah Zhang on at

By now, you've likely heard the insane story of a 16-year-old boy who survived a five-hour flight from California to Hawaii hidden in a wheel well. How the hell did his body make it through sub-zero temperatures with little oxygen? Probably by going into "suspended animation," a strange, frozen state that's about as close you can get to death without dying.

Since 1947, 105 people are known to have stowed away in wheel wells, and 25 of them survived, according to the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute. In many of those cases, the flights were shorter and at lower altitudes, so this boy's story is certainly one of the more incredible. The Hawaii-bound flight flew as high as to 38,000 feet. Stowing away on that flight would be like ascending past the top of Mt. Everest and back down in a few hours. Some experts have expressed incredulity at his survival, but security camera footage seems to corroborate his story.

Up in the air, there are three main dangers: 1) lack of oxygen, 2) freezing temperatures, and 3) falling out of the wheel well. Oxygen depletion would quickly knock you unconscious, which is why falling is a particular hazard. As strange as it may sound, the cold is likely what saved the boy from lack of oxygen, as metabolism slows almost to a halt in suspended animation.

Temperatures outside the airplane at 38,000 can drop to 26 degrees celsius below zero. The freezing conditions were probably enough to make his body temperature drop low enough to enter the hibernation-like state of suspended animation. Heartbeats and breaths slow dramatically, and cellular activity in the body nearly stops. If your body isn't doing much, it doesn't need much oxygen. It was likely this state that allowed the boy to survive without brain damage.

Heat from the hydraulic lines that power the wheels as well as the wheels themselves, could also provide some buffer from the cold, according to an FAA report. That may be what helped the boy from suffering severe frostbite, which befell other surviving stowaways.

In the controlled conditions of a hospital, doctors will sometimes put patients into suspended animation to slow tissue damage after, say, a heart attack or stroke. The first human trials of using the cold to treat trauma patients are just starting up, too.

What's interesting is that the conditions of this flight seem to be a crude approximation of a medical procedure. Or, put another way, modern medicine is often a precise series of steps that push the human body to its limits. Doctors try to control for as many variables as possible, but it's a calculated risk. In the freewheeling world of stowing away though, you'll need a massive dose of luck. [TIME, LiveScience, CNN]

Top image: A plane lands at Mineta San Jose International Airport, where the boy climbed into a jet's wheel well. AP Photo/Eric Risberg