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Dead wheel-well stowaway went undiscovered for 7 flights

June 12, 2013 at 2:39 PM ET

A man who died while flying in the wheel well of a Russian charter plane is shining a spotlight on the issue of airplane stowaways and, by extension, routine maintenance and pre-flight inspections.

As originally reported in The Aviation Herald, it appears the deceased flew in the wheel well on at least seven flights before being discovered.

The incident unfolded on June 6, after the i-Fly flight landed at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport and maintenance workers discovered blood stains on one of the main landing gear struts. Upon further inspection, they found the body of a young male carrying a Georgian passport.

An autopsy revealed that he had frozen to death four days previously, meaning his body had been transported on at least seven flights. It’s unknown where he initially boarded the flight.

While going undiscovered for multiple flights is an anomaly, stowaways represent an ongoing challenge for airlines. Last September, Jose Matada of Mozambique fell 2,000 feet to his death when a Heathrow-bound jet opened its landing-gear doors, less than a month after another body was discovered after a flight from Cape Town had landed at the airport.

In perhaps the most horrifying case, John Gilpin, an amateur photographer in Australia, unintentionally captured a 14-year-old boy falling out of a Japan Airlines jet as it took off from Sydney in February 1970.

According to statistics maintained by Dr. Stephen Veronneau, a research medical officer at FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, there have been 99 cases worldwide of individuals stowing away in airplane wheel wells since 1947, including the June 6 incident. Of those, 76 have proven fatal.

“Unfortunately, this sort of thing has been happening for years and years and years,” said Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot for a major U.S. carrier and founder of AskThePilot.com. “It almost always involves somebody coming from a developing country.”

The dangers range from the mechanical — massive moving parts in confined spaces — to the physiological impacts of flying in unheated, unpressurized compartments at high altitudes. According to FAA, the temperature at 30,000 feet is typically around -48⁰F and air pressure is roughly 70 percent lower than at sea level.

“Even if they’re not crushed to death by the machinery, they’re subjected to sub-freezing temperatures and no oxygen,” Smith told NBC News. “There’s almost no chance of survival.”

As for a stowaway going undiscovered for multiple flights, Smith says that that, too, isn’t surprising.

“Walk around inspections, which are done by maintenance personnel and flightcrew members, do include a check of the landing-gear bays but there’s so much plumbing and machinery in there that every nook and cranny isn’t necessarily visible,” he said.

“If you’ve ever stood under the wheel well of a widebody jet, you can understand how it could happen.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.

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