from the it-only-works-in-movies dept.
NBC reports that as miraculous as it was that a 16-year-old California boy was able to hitch a ride from San Jose to Hawaii and survive, it isn't the first time a wheel-well stowaway has lived to tell about it.
The FAA says that since 1947 there have been 105 people who have tried to surreptitiously travel in plane landing gear world-wide on 94 flights with a survival rate of about 25 percent. But the agency adds that the actual numbers are probably higher, as some survivors may have escaped unnoticed, and bodies could fall into the ocean undetected. Except for the occasional happy ending, hiding in the landing gear of a aircraft as it soars miles above the Earth is generally a losing proposition.
According to a study titled "Survival at High Altitudes: Wheel-Well Passengers" (PDF) by FAA/Wright State University:
At 20,000 feet the temperature experienced by a stowaway would be -13 F, at 30,000 it would be -45 in the wheel well and at 40,000 feet, it can plunge to a deadly -85 F. "You're dealing with an incredibly harsh environment," says aviation and security expert Anthony Roman. "Temperatures can reach -50 F, and oxygen levels there are barely sustainable for life." Even if a strong-bodied individual is lucky enough to stand the cold and the lack of oxygen, there's still the issue of falling out of the plane. "It's almost impossible not to get thrown out when the gear opens," says Roman.
So how do the lucky one-in-four survive? The answer, surprisingly, is that a few factors of human physiology are at play: As the aircraft climbs, the body enters a state of hypoxia-that is, it lacks oxygen-and the person passes out. At the same time, the frigid temperatures cause a state of hypothermia, which preserves the nervous system. "It's similar to a young kid who falls to the bottom of an icy lake," says Roman "And two hours later he survives, because he was so cold."