Teen stowaway faced numerous risks on flight

A 15-year-old boy is recovering after surviving 5.5 hours from San Jose to Kahului in the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines Boeing 767. So how did he get inside the plane and survive the long flight?

KHON2 got to look at a wheel-well compartment and it’s a very tight space with many dangers involved.

Brian Isaacson, assistant professor at the Aeronautics Maintenance Technology program at Honolulu Community College says it’s easy to climb in. “If you’re a young person, it’s just like climbing up the monkey bars,” he said. “It would be like a large walk-in closet filled with all sorts of mechanical objects, electrical wire, tubing.”

Students train on a decommissioned McDonnell Douglas DC-9, which is smaller than the Boeing 767 the stowaway traveled in. The 767 has four tires instead of two and its landing gear is three times taller.

Despite the differences, Isaacson says the boy could have easily gotten crushed. “As mechanism works, as the landing gear retracts and doors closed, the engineers don’t have a lot of luxury of a whole bunch of space,” Isaacson said.

Another challenge is surviving the cold temperature once the plane flies to a higher altitude.

But Isaacson said there’s a lot of equipment in the compartment that gets warm while running, which could have helped keep the teen warm.

“Plus, if it’s a long flight, there’s probably a reservoir of warm fuel in the center fuel tank. Then you’ve got radiated heat coming down from the passenger compartment,” he said.

At such a high altitude, there is very little oxygen since the compartment is not pressurized like the passenger cabin. Experts say a stowaway would suffer from altitude sickness.

“Sometimes very serious, throbbing head, confusing pure reflexes, nausea, vomiting, certainly long-term, obviously, you’re not interested in eating,” said Dr. Kalani Brady with the John A. Burns School of Medicine.

The teenager said he passed out and regained consciousness, which Dr. Brady said is possible. Dr. Brady also said the boy’s young age may have helped him survive.

“We know in general from people who climb the Rockies and Andes and high mountains around the world that altitude sickness is related to age,” Dr. Brady said.

Even though the teenager survived this trip, he could suffer some long-term health effects. Dr. Brady said a lack of oxygen to the brain can sometimes result in brain damage.

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