Post 115 – Ask Prof: Surviving a flight in a wheel well

Last month, the world was mesmerized when a 15-year-old Somali boy survived a flight in a Hawaiian Airlines wheel well for a flight from San Jose, California to Maui, Hawaii. Right after the news broke, a student asks me during class… how?!  So in another one of my class tangents, we had a discussion to explore the human physiology in such situations. In this blog, we go over what the experts say.


First question I ask the class is …

What’s the extreme environment that makes this so special?

The FAA did research saying that there were 95 attempted stowaways on 84 flights around the world from 1996 to August 2012. More than 75% of those attempts resulted in deaths. So why?

Temperature and lack of oxygen. At cruise flight of over 30,000 feet, temperatures can dip to below -80 degrees F. As the airplane goes higher, not only does the temperature normally decrease (there are some limited exceptions, usually due to weather systems, where this isn’t always the case), but air pressure also decreases. We know it’s harder to breathe when we go up to the mountains. The lower the air pressure, the harder it is to get oxygen into the body, plus there’s less oxygen in the air to intake.

A little knowledge of physics will help here. Physics and Chemistry are well-represented when we discuss human physiology!

So the stowaway is cold and hypoxic for most of the 5-hour flight from California to Hawaii.


How did the body adapt?

News reports stated that he stumbled out of the wheel well upon landing in Hawaii, dazed and confused. Reports stated that he was unconscious or had fainted during the flight.

Going unconscious is a body adaptation, putting the body into a hibernation state. Blood probably is shunted away from the cerebral cortex for the brainstem, which is responsible for basic life functions like breathing and heartrate. We already know that in cold weather, our blood moves away from our arms and legs for the core body, like the heart. It’s very likely that that happened here too.

Besides those arteriole and pre-capillary sphincters (remember those?) shunting blood away from non-essential areas of the body, the heart rate probably slowed down. Both of these helps to reduce oxygen demand of the body.

The FAA report summary stated, “Despite the lack of pressurization, or personal O2 equipment, the presence of warm hydraulic lines in the wheel-well and the initially warm tires provided significant heat. The stable climb of the aircraft enabled hypoxia to lead to gradual unconsciousness. As the wheel-well environment slowly cooled, hypothermia accompanies the deep hypoxia, preserving nervous system viability. With descent, and warming, along with increasing atmospheric oxygen pressure, hypoxia and hypothermia slowly resolved.” So the gradual change helped the body during this time.

The stowaway was also lucky that during decent, when the wheel wells opened up, he did not fall out, as has happened in many prior incidents.

It helps that he is young. The body is more fit and can adapt more readily.


Related: Cold and Death

The LiveScience article reminded me that there are many incidences to people being pronounced dead after being found in cold weather, or submerged after falling through an icy lake. Once the person is gradually warmed up, the person regains a heartbeat and (eventually) consciousness. So there is evidence of the cold helping one’s survival. I remember when I worked in pre-hospital care in the 1990s the quote, “they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead.”


Needless to say, this boy’s extremely lucky!




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