Survival at High Altitude: Wheel-Well Passengers

S.R. Mohler and S.J.H.Veronneau

Wright State University, Dayton, OH 45435
FAA Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, Oklahoma City, OK 73125

Individuals desiring to flee Cuba since 1959 have attempted various modes of escape, including becoming a stow-away on aircraft by climbing into the left side of the right wing wheel-well of a DC-8 aircraft poised for take-off. One individual successfully made a flight in this manner from Havana to Madrid, Spain. Several others died during these attempts. Recently, a successful flight was made in a DC-8 wheel-well from Bogota, Colombia to Miami, Florida.

Process and Results
Two reported cases of high altitude flight by stow-aways are detailed (Havana, Cuba to Madrid) and from Bogota to Miami. The cruise altitudes of these flights were in the 35,000 foot region with stratospheric temperatures at the (-) 65F range. 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. At the ramp, with individuals were found in a semi-conscious state, and, upon treatment, recovered. Approximately a dozen copycat attempts have been made in 1993 with fatalities.

Wheel-well stow-aways continue to be a problem and require prevention.

Last updated: Monday, March 2, 2009