MAUI, Hawaii (CNN)-
The first sign something was off was when the ground crew at Kahului Airport in Maui noticed a boy wandering the tarmac, dazed and confused.
The story he told officials was even more incredible.
The 16-year-old apparently hitched a ride from San Jose, California, to Maui, Hawaii, in the landing-gear wheel well of a Boeing 767, Hawaiian Airlines said Sunday.
“Our primary concern now is for the well-being of the boy, who is exceptionally lucky to have survived,” the airline said.
He certainly is.
If his story pans out — and the FBI has been called in to investigate — he rode in the tiny cramped compartment for almost five hours, at altitudes that reached 38,000 feet, without oxygen and under subzero temperatures.
That has some experts questioning his story.
“It sounds really incredible,” said aviation expert Jeff Wise. “Being in a wheel well is like all of a sudden being on top of Mount Everest.”
Between the oxygen depletion and the cold, life expectancy “is measured in minutes,” Wise said.
But some people have survived. A study by the Federal Aviation Administration looked at 10 wheel-well passenger stowaways between 1947 and 1993, involving flights as high as 39,000 feet. Five people survived. The conditions put them in a virtual “hibernative” state, the report said.
Perhaps a young, healthy teen could slip into unconsciousness so that the body cools and “the central nervous system is preserved,” said CNN aviation expert Michael Kay. Also, he said, “there could be a situation where inside the bay is warmer than the external air temperature and you wouldn’t get the instantaneous freezing of the skin.”
Still, “for somebody to survive multiple hours with that lack of oxygen and that cold is just miraculous,” airline analyst Peter Forman told CNN affiliate KHON in Honolulu.
Videos bear out events
Several parts of the boy’s story pan out.
Authorities don’t know who the boy is. He didn’t have an ID. The only thing he did have on him was a comb.
He told authorities he was from Santa Clara, California, and ran away from home Sunday morning, said FBI Special Agent Tom Simon.
Investigators have surveillance camera footage of him hopping the fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport.
There’s also camera footage of him walking across the ramp in San Jose toward the Hawaiian aircraft, the California airport said.
He told investigators he crawled into the wheel well of the plane and lost consciousness when the plane took off.
An hour after the plane landed at Kahului Airport, the boy regained consciousness and emerged to a “dumbfounded” ground crew, Simon said.
The Maui airport has video of him crawling out of the left main gear area.
“It makes no sense to me,” Simon said.
The teen hasn’t been charged with a federal crime, and was placed with child protective services.
The video footage of him in San Jose and Maui could indicate a serious problem. “Clearly there’s a big security breach here, which in the post 9/11 world order is a concern,” said Kay, the aviation expert. To get past all sorts of people apparently unnoticed is “a physical feat,” he said.
Also, the wheel well is filled with equipment and technology that, “if removed or dislodged in some way, could present an air safety risk,” said Kay, a former assault helicopter pilot in the British military.
In February, crews at Dulles International Airport in suburban Washington found the body of a man inside the landing-gear wheel well of an Airbus A340 operated by South African Airways.
In 2010, a 16-year-old boy died after he fell out of the wheel well of a US Airways flight that was landing at Boston’s Logan International Airport.
Around the world, many of the people who attempt wheel well stowaways are looking to escape their countries through international flights.
By Saeed Ahmed, Josh Levs and Dave Alsup, Joe Sutton
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