Body found in jet’s wheel well at SFO

The Associated Press
Wednesday February 21, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — A body was found in the wheel well of a US Airways jet at San Francisco International Airport, but authorities were not immediately sure how the man died or whether he was a stowaway. 

The man was discovered a few minutes after landing late Monday. His body was found by a mechanic checking a possible hydraulic leak on Flight 741, which originated at London’s Gatwick Airport. The flight stopped in Pittsburgh before landing in San Francisco at 8:45 p.m. 

The San Mateo County coroner’s office was awaiting information from England, and expected an identification might come by Wednesday morning. London authorities believe the man may be the same person who was arrested at Gatwick on Sunday for breaching security regulations. 

An individual fitting the dead man’s description was arrested after attempting to gain access to a plane at Gatwick on Sunday, police said. He was released on bail and police were preparing to fax the man’s fingerprints to California authorities. 

“We arrested a young Afro-Caribbean man at Gatwick on Sunday for breaching security,” Police Constable Kevin Clark said. “The man found on the jet matches his description, so it could be the same one. 

“It is quite unusual for people to try and get out of the U.K. Most try to get in,” Clark said. 

The mechanic found the man in the 767-200’s center wheel well, which is about 15 feet wide and 20 feet long, airport duty manager Mike Towle said, adding that he understood the dead man was neither an employee of US Airways nor a passenger listed for the flight. 

“I’ve been here 30 years. There’s been stowaways, but not like this,” Towle said. 

US Airways spokesman David Castelveter said it’s unknown where and when the man boarded the jet. Castelveter declined to say whether the airline had concerns about security at Gatwick while the issue was “still a police matter.” 

The San Mateo sheriff’s office and airline officials were investigating. The Federal Aviation Administration also had been notified. 

Stowing away in an airliner wheel well often is fatal. When the wheels retract, the area is enclosed, but it’s not pressurized, so there is limited oxygen and extremely cold temperatures. 

“If he thought he could survive a trip like that in that part of the airplane, he was sadly mistaken,” said San Francisco airport spokesman Ron Wilson. 

Attempts at such desperate activities persist, however. 

Last August, a man survived a freezing flight across the Pacific in the wheel well of an Air France jet that landed at the Los Angeles airport. The flight originated in Papeete, Tahiti. 

The following month, the body of a Russian stowaway was discovered in the wheel well of a KLM jet arriving in Amsterdam from Moscow. The 21-year-old man died from exposure. 


And in November, a Romanian man was discovered unconscious and suffering from hypothermia in the undercarriage of a Berlin-bound passenger jet that was forced to return to Munich after the pilot couldn’t retract the landing gear. 

“At higher altitudes you can get to almost minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit with no oxygen. So the chances of surviving something like that are totally remote,” Wilson said.