SAN JOSE, Calif. – A 16-year-old boy scrambled over an airport fence, crossed a tarmac and climbed into a jetliner’s wheel well, then flew for five freezing hours to Hawaii – a misadventure that stirred concern about possible weak spots in the security system that protects the nation’s airline fleet.
The boy, who lives in Santa Clara, hopped out of the wheel well of a Boeing 767 on the Maui airport tarmac Sunday. Authorities found him wandering around the airport grounds with no identification. He was questioned by the FBI and taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was found to be unharmed.
FBI spokesman Tom Simon in Honolulu said the teen did not remember the flight from San Jose.
It was not immediately clear how the boy stayed alive in the unpressurized space, where temperatures at cruising altitude can fall well below zero and the air is too thin for humans to stay conscious. An FAA study of stowaways found that some went into a hibernation-like state.
On Monday, authorities tried to determine how the boy slipped through multiple layers of security, including extensive video surveillance, German shepherds and Segway-riding police officers.
Security footage from the San Jose airport verified that the boy climbed a fence and crossed a runway to get to Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45 on Sunday morning, Simon said.
That airport, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is surrounded by fences, although many sections do not have barbed wire and could easily be scaled.
The boy climbed over during the night, under the cover of darkness, San Jose airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said Monday.
Hours later, surveillance video at Kahului Airport showed the boy getting out of the wheel well after landing, according to a statement from Hawaii’s Department of Transportation. The video was not released because of the ongoing investigation.
Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Alison Croyle said airline workers noticed the boy on the ramp after the flight arrived and immediately notified airport security. Our primary concern now is for the well-being of the boy, who is exceptionally lucky to have survived, Croyle said.
Unlike checkpoint security inside the airport, which is the responsibility of the Transportation Security Administration, airport perimeters are policed by local authorities as well as federal law enforcement.
Airport police were working with the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration to review security.
The boy was released to child protective services in Hawaii and not charged with a crime, Simon said.
The FAA says 105 stowaways have sneaked aboard 94 flights worldwide since 1947, and about 1 out of 4 survived. But agency studies say the actual numbers are probably higher, as some survivors may have escaped unnoticed, and bodies could fall into the ocean undetected.
An FAA review of high-altitude wheel well survivors said they typically clamber past the main landing gear into a wing recess area next to where the gear retracts. On some aircraft, that space is large enough for two small adults.
The FAA found that all wheel-well stowaways will lose consciousness at high altitude from lack of oxygen and that their freezing bodies go into a state somewhat similar to hibernation.
At 38,000 feet – the cruising altitude of the Hawaiian Airlines flight – the outside air temperature is about minus 85 degrees. That would usually be deadly, but some people survive because their breathing, heart rate and brain activity slow down.