The Scary Story Of Keith Sapsford: The Falling Stowaway

An infamous photograph from 1970 shows Keith Sapsford falling from a departing plane. On February 22 of that year, 14-year-old Keith Sapsford, a resident of Sydney, Australia's Randwick suburb, climbed into the wheel well of a Tokyo-bound Douglas DC-8. This was the last decision he ever made.

As the plane lifted off, Keith Sapsford fell from the wheel well and plunged some 200 feet onto the tarmac below. He didn't survive. An amateur photographer who happened to be taking photos at the airport that day captured the dramatic image of Keith Sapsford falling from the plane, immortalizing a tragedy that many still remember today.

Though the photo doesn't show Keith Sapsford's face, it nonetheless captures his last moments with chilling clarity. But what was his story, and how did he come to meet such an untimely end?

  • Keith Was A 'Wanderer' From An Early Age

    At just 14 years of age, Keith Sapsford's father described him as a curious kid with “itchy feet” and an “urge to keep on the move.” In fact, Keith's wanderlust had already caused his family problems, even before the tragedy that claimed his life.

    Living in a suburb of Sydney, New South Wales, the family took a trip overseas in an effort to curb Keith's seemingly insatiable desire for travel. Upon their return, however, Keith's proclivities became even more prominent, prompting Keith's family to send him to Boys' Town, a Catholic institution in south Sydney, hoping it would “straighten him out.”

    Within weeks, however, Keith escaped Boys' Town and was on his way to one last, fatal journey.

  • Keith's Parents Sent Him To Boys' Town To Curb His Restless Spirit

    According to Keith Sapsford's parents, he just wanted to see the world. Unfortunately, even a family vacation overseas wasn't enough to satisfy him.

    Unsure of what else to do, his parents sent him to Boys' Town, a Catholic residential school in a Sydney suburb that “specialized in dealing with troubled children, those who were in need of structure and a formal discipline arrangement.”

    The institution underestimated Keith's drive for adventure, however, and within two weeks, he ran away from Boys' Town and was on his way to the Sydney airport.

  • Months Prior To Keith's Death, His Father Warned Him About The Dangers Of Sneaking Onto Planes

    Keith's father, Charles Sapsford, was a university lecturer in mechanical and industrial engineering. He understood the realities of attempting to stow away in a plane's undercarriage - such attempts usually resulted in the stowaway's death.

    Knowing his son's restless nature, he tried to explain the dangers of such an action, telling Keith the story of a boy in Spain who hid in the undercarriage of an aircraft and died there. He detailed the risks associated not only with the mechanical parts of the plane, but with exposure to the kinds of high altitudes a flying aircraft reaches.

    Unfortunately, his warnings didn't have the desired effect on his son.

  • Wheel-Well Stowaways Are Unlikely To Survive For Several Reasons

    In the history of air travel, no wheel-well stowaways have been completely successful in their journey. Even if a stowaway manages to survive takeoff, the extremely low air pressure and temperatures at a plane's cruising altitude pose significant dangers to anyone on the aircraft's exterior.

    While in flight, a wheel-well stowaway may also contract hypothermia or hypoxia - a state in which oxygen isn't sufficiently available at the tissue level - leading to harmful and sometimes fatal effects. Lasting hearing damage is also a significant risk.

    Even if a stowaway survives a plane's takeoff and flight despite ultra-low temperatures and atmospheric pressure, the plane's landing poses another significant hurdle; the wheel's movements could either crush the stowaway or fling them from the plane.

  • Keith Snuck Aboard A Tokyo-Bound Flight At The Sydney Airport

    Keith Snuck Aboard A Tokyo-Bound Flight At The Sydney Airport
    Photo: Phillip Capper / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    In 1970, airport security measures were not what they are today, and Keith Sapsford was able to make his way onto the tarmac of the Sydney Airport, where he spotted a Douglas DC-8 preparing for boarding.

    No one knows if whether Keith knew the plane's destination or simply didn't care. His desire for travel may have been enough to override any interest in where he was going, just as it was enough to override his father's warnings about the dangers of stowing away.

    The plane he chose was bound for Tokyo, but Keith never made it that far. He crawled up into the plane's wheel well, though he wouldn't remain there long.

  • Keith Fell To His Death Within Minutes Of Takeoff

    While we can only speculate about what went through Keith Sapsford's mind as he snuck into the Douglas DC-8's wheel well that February day, he perhaps thought he would be safer in the wheel well than the stowaway in his father's story.

    Unfortunately for Keith, he didn't account for the fact that the wheel well would reopen shortly after takeoff for the plane to retract its landing gear. When this occurred, the plane was a mere 200 feet above the runway, but that was more than enough.

    Keith fell from the ascending plane, and his young life was tragically cut short.