Images of footprints and handprints inside the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45 jetliner appear to bolster the fantastic story of a Santa Clara teenager who reportedly survived a frigid, perilous journey cooped up inside as a stowaway.
The images, including of a footprint on the tire below the wheel well, were taken by Hawaii News Now, and appear to support the boy’s story of surviving the 5-1/2 hour flight from San Jose while enduring sub-zero temperatures and deathly thin air.
Authorities said it was a miracle the 15-year-old boy survived in the wheel well, as oxygen was limited at the jet's cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, and the temperature could have dropped to 50 degrees below zero or lower.
He then managed to stay in the wheel well when the bay doors opened twice in the air.
“The more remarkable thing from a science and medical standpoint -- how did he survive the plane? How does he not fall out?” said Armand Dorian, associate clinical professor of emergency medicine at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital who treated a wheel well stowaway in 2000. “You can survive all those things, but how do you prop yourself into that thing?”
Only 25 of the 105 people who have attempted to stow away in the wheel wells of planes in the last 67 years have survived the ordeal, according to FAA records. Those who do not fall or freeze to death can be crushed by moving landing gear or die from lack of oxygen.
Hawaiian Airlines spokeswoman Alison Coyle said the wheel well doors open twice during typical flights -- about one mile after takeoff to stow the landing gear, and three to five miles before landing to free it.
“I don’t think he could pull it off twice, luck was on his side,” Dorian said. “I almost think you got to give this guy a medal just for surviving this.”
A spokeswoman with Hawaii’s Department of Human Services this week said the boy was resting comfortably in a hospital and is preparing to go home to Santa Clara. Authorities in Hawaii and California say they don’t plan to charge the teen with trespassing and are instead focused on how he accomplished his journey without being caught.
According to a federal law enforcement source who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the case, a security camera at the airport recorded video of a person coming over a perimeter fence at the airport just after 1 a.m. Sunday.
The Hawaiian Airlines flight didn't take off until about six hours later, indicating that the boy apparently went undetected for hours.
Brian Jenkins, an aviation security expert at Rand Corp., said that only the boy would be able to fully account for his actions leading up to the flight.
"From where he went over the fence to where that plane was, where was he in between that period of time?" Jenkins said. "Was he in contact with other people? And does that represent another point of failure?"