Kent Sepkowitz explains how the 16-year-old boy who stowed away in the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines flight from San Jose to Maui on Sunday survived the ordeal:
[A] confluence of dangers sometimes works to some small advantage.
The extreme cold of the upper atmosphere—wheel well riders have had body temperatures recorded at around 80 degrees Fahrenheit—slows the body’s cellular activities, sharply reducing the demand by cells for oxygen. A normal person becomes unconscious—comatose really—in this extreme cold. Just as once in a while, a drowning victim will survive because the extreme cold water acted in a similar fashion to suspend normal function, so too does some lucky wheel well stowaway occasionally make it back to the ground alive. According to the FAA data, younger men, like this week’s 16-year-old, are the survivors.
That is, unless they fall out as the plane lands:
The bodies of stowaways falling from airplanes on final approach has happened a few times in recent history, including on flights from Angola to London and from Charlotte, N.C. to Boston. The FAA lists several instances where a stowaway managed to survive the extreme temperatures with little oxygen, only to fall to his or her death when the airplane started to land.