True Stories Of People Who Stowed Away On Airplanes

Catching a free flight sounds nice, but not when you risk your life to do so. Stowing away on an airplane involves hiding in the wheel well of the craft. It has not only has serious implications for air safety, but also typically results in death. Of the 113 people who stowed away in the United States between 1947 and June 2015, 76% died. Flying unprotected leads to death from hypothermia or oxygen depravation. Many died when they were crushed by the landing mechanism that retracts into the wheel well or when they fell from the plane after takeoff.

Many people die mid-flight, but at least their deaths are accounted for. According to the Federal Aviation Association, the number of stowaways is likely higher than records show because so many bodies fall into the ocean.

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  • Keith Sapsford's Fall Was Captured On Camera

    In 1970, John Gilpin, an Australian photographer, captured the moment 14-year-old Keith Sapsford fell 200 feet from the wheel well of DC-8 owned by Japan Airlines. The young boy likely fell from the aircraft when the landing mechanism shifted.

    Gilpin accidentally snapped a photo of Sapsford falling, but he didn't discover the image until he had his film developed two weeks later.

  • Yahye Abdi Stowed Away And Lived To Tell The Tale

    Yahye Abdi Stowed Away And Lived To Tell The Tale
    Video: YouTube

    In April 2014, California teenager Yahye Abdi snuck onto a Boeing 747 at the San Jose International Airport. He hid in the wheel well of a plane headed to Maui and remained there for the nearly six-hour flight. Abdi told news outlets he wanted to see his mother, who lives in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. During the flight, he remembers seeing clouds "through the little holes."

    Abdi miraculously survived the trip despite the freezing cold temperatures and low oxygen levels. He spoke to his mother by phone for the first time in eight years when authorities investigated the case.

  • Two Teens From Ecuador Fell Onto A Runway And Died

    In February 2018, on a flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to New York, two teenagers as well as a suitcase filled with clothing and $20 fell from the wheel well of a plane. They fell 1,000 feet just after takeoff and landed on the runway. One of the teens died on impact, and the other died from the injuries he suffered.

    Gen. Marcelo Tobar, Guayaquil's police chief, believes they were either forced out by the landing gears, or they jumped in the hope they would survive. Police identified the pair as Marco Vinicio and Luis Manuel. They were cousins from a province outside Guayaquil, Ecuador.

  • A Stowaway Wanted For Kidnapping Died Trying To Escape His Criminal Past

    A Stowaway Wanted For Kidnapping Died Trying To Escape His Criminal Past
    Photo: ABC News / YouTube

    Wanted on kidnapping charges in Antigua, 30-year-old Trevor Jacobs snuck aboard a flight to Trinidad in February 1998. Maintenance workers discovered him frozen in the wheel well of the plane. Jacobs snuck into a small space through the landing gear of an MD-80 and died sometime during the flight.

  • One Man Was Crushed And Frozen On A Flight To Atlanta

    One Man Was Crushed And Frozen On A Flight To Atlanta
    Photo: Ozzy Delaney / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    In 2007, a man's frozen body was discovered in an airplane wheel well on a flight from South Africa to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. 

    Authorities believe the man snuck onto the plane during a stopover in Senegal. His body was frozen and crushed in the plane's landing gear. He died either from very cold temperatures or from a lack of oxygen.

    After the plane took off, the FAA alerted Delta there might have been a stowaway on the plane, but it was too late to turn the aircraft around.

  • A Man Fell From The Wheel Well During Landing At Heathrow

    José Matada fell to his death from a British Airways flight in 2012. Police discovered his body near Heathrow airport the day after his 27th birthday. Authorities believe he survived most of the 12-hour trip and was probably dead or very near death when he fell out of the wheel well.

    He didn't have any identification papers on him, and no one reported him missing. Detectives identified him in April 2013 after analyzing his phone card. He was flying from Angola, where he worked as a gardener and housekeeper.