Skip to main content

Pilot: Stowaway teen got ride of his life

By Les Abend
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pilot Les Abend was incredulous that a teen could access and survive flight in wheel well
  • He says when pilot completes preflight walk-around, he checks fuel lines, not for stowaways
  • He asks: He was not crushed when wheels retracted. How? After that, he got ride of life
  • Abend: Plane climbs 2,000 feet per minute. With cold, low oxygen, teen survived on luck

Editor's note: Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 29 years of flying experience. He is a senior contributor to Flying magazine, a worldwide publication in print for more than 75 years. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Like the rest of the world, when I learned about the teenage stowaway who climbed into the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines 767 in San Jose bound for Maui, I shook my head. Really? What kind of hoax is this? And then security cameras captured him at both airports. You've got to be kidding. From an airline pilot's perspective, this leaves me incredulous.

First of all, how did the kid get in? According to news reports, he would have had to get over a 6- to 8-foot fence with three strands of barbed wire to reach the plane at Mineta San Jose International Airport. Granted, it was dark, but he went undetected as he walked right to the airplane.

Les Abend
Les Abend

Apparently nobody was monitoring CCTV when he clambered up the cumbersome apparatus of the landing gear. Ground personnel saw nothing unusual nor did the pilot who completed the walk-around inspection just before departure.

Before taking off, we pilots look in the wheel well area to check for fluid leaks, or lines and hoses that seem out of place. Our detailed glances are not searching for stowaways. It's just not in our psyche to consider such things in a wheel well. It might be now. Of course, this kind of stowaway has happened before, with very limited success. But in 30 years with my airline, it's not something I have experienced.

Stowaway raised questions about airport security

Let's just assume that this young man was not exactly showing keen intelligence to have even conceived this run-away-from-home plot. Still, how did he find just the right spot to hide where 3,000 PSI of hydraulic pressure wouldn't crush him like a bug against a windshield? Luck is my only answer.

How stowaway could hide in wheel well
Can anyone survive in a plane's wheel well?
How a stowaway survived a 5-hour flight

And once the airplane becomes airborne, this 16-year-old was in for the ride of his life, literally. The 767 can climb at 2,000 feet per minute for most of its ascent, about 20 minutes until reaching cruise altitude. In this case, my understanding is that cruise altitude was 38,000 feet. Perhaps some of the oxygen pressure in his hiding place was maintained by the seal of the gear doors, but it wouldn't have lasted long at an adequate level, certainly not 5½ hours.

And how about the temperature? My guess is that the outside air would have been in the range of -60F to -40F, not exactly a comfortable environment, let alone survivable. Perhaps the heat of the landing gear brakes kept the wheel well area warm for a time.

5 stowaway attempts that didn't end tragically

It helped that the teen apparently lost consciousness. But with the landing gear being activated during the approach into Maui, how did he not fall to his death if he wasn't holding on to some part of the airplane structure?

Bottom line? This is an amazing story of survival. But I wouldn't give this kid an award. I'd send him to bed without supper.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT