Teen Stowaway Somehow Survives Flight To Hawaii In Wheel Well

The FBI is saying that a 16-year-old boy is lucky to be alive after he hid in the wheel well of a flight from San Jose to Maui. Severe temperatures and low oxygen would make survival difficult. Investigators are examining the case.

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How did a 16-year-old boy manage to sneak onto an airport tarmac, climb into the wheel well of an airliner, and survive a five-plus hour flight from San Jose to Maui in sub-freezing temperatures? That's what federal investigators are trying to figure out. Hawaiian Airlines says the boy is exceptionally lucky to have survived in that unpressurized space. The boy is said to be in good condition; his name has not been released.

NPR's Richard Gonzales is covering this story and joins me now. And Richard, what's known about how this boy got in with the landing gear and lived to tell about it?

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Well, this remarkable story begins early Easter Sunday morning. It's still dark when a security video shows a figure hopping over a fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport, and then walking towards Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45. No one sees the boy or the fact that, as he says, he jumps into the wheel well of the Boeing 747. The plane then flies for more than five hours to Maui, arriving at about 10:30 a.m. local time. After the arrival, the boy emerges from the plane, and Hawaiian Airlines personnel find him on a tarmac ramp.

And since he has no identification, they call security and the FBI. He tells the FBI he fell asleep inside the wheel well, and doesn't recall anything about his experience at 38,000 feet, where temperatures range from between 40 to 80 degrees below zero.

BLOCK: It just sounds unbelievable, but there have been other cases - right? - of people doing exactly this; stowing away in the wheel well and surviving.

GONZALES: Well, it's possible. The FAA has two reported cases of stowaways on high-altitude flights like this one. And late today, the Hawaii Department of Transportation issued a statement saying that surveillance video they have on that side showed what appeared to be the boy exiting from the wheel well of the plane from San Jose; but due to the ongoing investigation, the video will not be released.

Earlier in the day, we spoke with Glenn Harmon, who is an associate professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. We asked, what would you expect to typically happen in this kind of case? And here's what he had to say.

GLENN HARMON: If, in fact, you were in that unpressurized, unprotected wheel well, I believe that what you would have would be a frozen body.

GONZALES: Now, Harmon says he doesn't deny the possibility that a person could survive under such conditions - freezing cold, and deprived of oxygen. He just thinks it's a remarkable feat.

BLOCK: Well, where is this teenage boy now?

GONZALES: Well, the boy was released to Hawaiian Child Protective Services as a runaway, and he is not facing any criminal charges. Meanwhile, the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration are reviewing security measures at the San Jose Airport. It was rather unnerving that someone could just jump a fence to get on a plane, in a day and age when the rest of us are standing in long lines to get through security. And Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell tweeted this message - he said: I have long been concerned about security at our airport perimeters. A stowaway teen demonstrates vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Richard Gonzales in San Francisco, joining us from member station KQED. Richard, thanks.

GONZALES: My pleasure.

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