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How Rare Was San Jose Teen’s Successful Wheel Well Stowaway Flight?

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SAN JOSE (CBS SF) – The South Bay teen who survived a five plus hour flight inside the wheel well of a jet traveling from San Jose to Maui is lucky to be alive today. A look at other stowaway attempts reveals that successful wheel well trips are rare, but not completely unprecedented.

“Within a few minutes up at that altitude, the person would pass out and, usually, they would not survive for hours on end up there,” said aviation expert Peter Forman. “It boggles the mind.”

According to a 2003 Slate article, an average of under 10 wheel-well stowaway flights were attempted each year during the early part of the last decade, with fewer than two per year surviving the trip. The article claims that the survival rate for such a trip between 1947 and 2004 was 20.3 percent.

“You would suffocate most likely up there,” said Forman. “It’s extremely unlikely that somebody would survive that long at that altitude. And if they did survive, you would think that they would have frostbite and all sorts of problems associated with the cold up there.”

Perhaps the best known case of stowaway survival came in the Summer of 2000, when a Tahitian named Fidel Maruhi was found in a wheel well after surviving a 4,000 mile flight to Los Angeles. He was treated for hypothermia and dehydration, but survived.

In 2002 a Cuban stowaway survivor named Victor Alvarez Molinai was discovered after enduring a flight to Canada at -40 degrees.

And in 2002, a Cuban stowaway, Victor Alverez Molina, endured minus 40C in a wheel well en route to Canada.

The BBC reports that, in 2010, a 20-year-old Romanian survived a flight from Vienna to London’s Heathrow stowed under a private jet, but that plane flew under 25,000ft due to bad weather.

A more common outcome is that unconscious stowaways either freeze to death at high altitude, or are unable to hold on when landing gear reopens on arrival, a problem experienced several times at Heathrow, according to the BBC. A 1997 report from the Flight Safety Foundation found similar fall risk during several incidents dating back to the 1940’s.

The teen who survived the Maui-bound flight apparently narrowly missed a similar fate. The FBI says they believe the teen was unconscious for most of the flight, which reaches altitudes around 38,000 feet. A witness reported seeing the 16-year-old fall out of the wheel well after landing.

“The juvenile was approached by airline personnel and they asked him what he was doing on the apron. He wasn’t too cooperative or too communicative at that time,” said Maui airport manager Marvin Moniz.

The TSA and FBI questioned the teen, who had no ID on him. He was taken away by ambulance for treatment.

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