How it happened: Stowaway science

  • BOEING 767 300-ER SIDE VIEW (55 m long x 16 m tall) Infographic by Francisco Andriani
  • Take-off to Landing Infographic by Francisco Andriani
Date:15 October 2014 Tags:,

In April this year, a 15-year-old boy popped out of the wheel well of a Boeing 767, apparently unharmed, after a 5½-hour, 3 800-km flight from San Jose, California, to Maui, Hawaii, much of which was spent in sub-zero temperatures. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 105 people have hitched illicit rides on planes since 1947, though a dismal 24 per cent lived through the ordeal.

“Whereas people train to climb a mountain and see what they can endure as far as lack of oxygen and sleep are concerned, this is done with no preparation,” says Dr Ray Basri, senior aviation medical examiner for the FAA. Turns out it’s the stable climb of an aircraft that gives stowaways a chance at survival.

Time into flight: 00:06:00 (6 minutes)
Temperature: – 2°
Height: 12 000 ft

Oxygen saturation decreases*, affecting cognition and coordination. Blood vessels close to the skin constrict to preserve core body temperature.

Time into flight: 00:10:00 (10 minutes)
Temperature: – 18°
Height: 18 000 ft

Oxygen intake is reduced by as much as 50 per cent. Hypoxia causes tremors, dizziness, euphoria – the stowaway feels drunk. Exposed skin may get frostbite.

Time into flight: 00:14:00 (14 minutes)
Temperature: – 28°
Height: 25 000 ft

Circulation is compromised, causing nausea and paralysis. Fluid fills the lungs and brain.

Time into flight: 00:20:00 (20 minutes)
Temperature: – 47°
Height: 35 000 ft

Hypothermia occurs in the extremities first. The stowaway blacks out. His body goes into shutdown mode, giving preferential blood flow, with whatever O2 is at hand, to the brain.

Time into flight: 05:15:00 (5 hours and 15 minutes)
Temperature: – 47°
Height: 35 000 ft
Decent begins

As O2 becomes available, the stowaway coughs up fluid from the lungs. Some take hours to awaken. Men’s greater muscle mass improves their odds for survival.

* Although the proportion of oxygen in the air at high altitudes is roughly the same as at sea level (21 per cent), molecules become increasingly dispersed, so each breath delivers less O2 to the body.

– By Michael Roselli

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