The deadly risks facing stowaways

Saturday February 10 2018


According to aviation reports, people have been trying to gain unauthorised access onto aircraft to stow away inside the cargo hold, spare parts compartments, wheel well or landing gear compartment from as far back as 1946. FOTOSEARCH 

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The past two weeks I’ve had two seemingly unrelated but yet memorable meetings.  

The first, was the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The second was with young Jose who happened to be my seat mate on a flight.

Jose, who was about five years old seemed to know his way around the inflight entertainment system pretty well and his choice of movie was rather interesting.

From the corner of my eye, I could see he had settled for one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

At some point, he paused to ask me a question; “So, stowaways on ships are made to walk the plank. What happens when there is a stowaway on an aircraft? Will the pilot have them leave?”

Let us just say for the purposes of quickly getting back to my interesting book, I fed the young lad’s wild imagination with an answer that had him beaming.

In a few years to come, he is going to realise that the captain on an aircraft does not have an eye patch or a sword and cannot open the aircraft doors midflight to make a stowaway walk on the aircraft wing.

Nevertheless, the kid raised a pertinent question. Why do we still have incidences of stowaways on aircraft when so much has been done to tighten airport security?

A few weeks ago, 66-year old Marilyn Hartman managed to sneak past airport security officials at the O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, US, and boarded a British Airways plane. 

She occupied an empty seat and flew to London. On arrival, she was promptly deported to the United States and charged with criminal trespass.

Incidentally, Ms Hartman had been busted eight times before in 2014 and twice in 2015 at various US airports for attempting to stow away on aircraft.

Without valid travel documents, one wonders how she managed to board the aircraft and leave the country.

Perhaps after charging her in court, the transport authorities should retain her services to learn the loopholes.

But cases such as Ms Hartman’s though not common, are not as alarming when compared with incidents where stowaways travel in parts of the aircraft other than the passenger cabin.

According to aviation reports, people have been trying to gain unauthorised access onto aircraft to stow away inside the cargo hold, spare parts compartments, wheel well or landing gear compartment from as far back as 1946.

From 1947 until June 2015, there have been over 113 known stow away attempts worldwide in wheel wells of 101 flights, which resulted in 86 deaths.

While some survival cases have been recorded for stowaways travelling in the cargo hold which is pressurised, the fare-dodgers who have used landing gear compartment almost certainly end up dead.

If not killed by the retracting wheels of the aircraft on take-off, most stowaways die from hypothermia as the aircraft gains and maintains cruise altitude.

Those that survive the thin air of such altitudes end up falling to their deaths as the landing gear kicks during approach for landing.

Such was the fate that befell a young Kenyan in 1997 when he stowed away in the nose wheel bay of a British Airways plane that departed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for London.

Dr Kituyi, who was then a member of parliament, demanded to know — during a parliamentary debate — from the relevant ministry, the state of security at JKIA.

Surprisingly 18 years later in 2015, there was another stowaway incident out of JKIA to Amsterdam on a cargo flight. The body was discovered on landing at Schipol Airport.

While Africa has the bulk of such reckless stow away attempts on outbound flights, other parts of the world have recorded incidents.

In 2014, 15-year old Yahya Abdi living in California stowed away in the wheel compartment of an aircraft for a five-hour flight at 38,000 feet and lived to tell the story.

While the flight he stowed away on was from Santa Clara headed to Hawaii, the teenager intended to board a flight to Africa where his mother lived in a refugee camp.
Interestingly, almost all recorded aircraft stowaways have been male.

Michael Otieno an aviation consultant and travel writer based in Nairobi. Twitter: @mosafariz; E-mail: [email protected]