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Mysteries Of The Human Body: How Airplane Stowaways Can Survive Oxygen Deprivation & Extreme Cold

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Despite the subzero temperatures and lack of oxygen, people can survive even a long journey in the wheel well of a jetliner. The latest example is a teenager who, according to authorities, stowed away on a 5 1/2-hour flight from San Jose, Calif., to Hawaii.

Surviving in such conditions is extremely improbable. But as we saw on Sunday, people can — and do — endure seemingly impossible situations… so let’s take a look at the wonders of the human body.

HOW DANGEROUS ARE THE CONDITIONS?

Very. At 38,000 feet, which is the standard cruising altitude of the Hawaiian Airlines flight that the teen was on, the outside air temperature is about minus 85 degrees. On top of the frigid temperatures, the air is so thin at that altitude that a person will quickly pass out because the brain is starved of oxygen.

View of an airplane wheel well from underneath.

View of an airplane wheel well from underneath.

The wheel well of an airplane is not temperature controlled. Initially, the plane’s machinery can aid a stowaway’s survival — warmth radiating from the wheels, which heat up on the runway during takeoff, and from hydraulic fluid lines, can moderate the temperature temporarily. But those effects dissipate rapidly. According to an FAA/Wright State University study titled “Survival at High Altitudes: Wheel-Well Passengers,” at 20,000 feet the temperature experienced by a stowaway would be -13 F, at 30,000 it would be -45 F in the wheel well — and at 40,000 feet, the mercury plunges to a deadly -85 F.

In an interview about a past stowaway incident, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen described the conditions in the wheel well of a plane, saying “It’s as cold as the top of Mount Everest.” On this particular flight, the cruising altitude was actually about 9,ooo feet higher than the summit of Mount Everest.

Unlike areas of the cargo hold that are pressurized so that pets can breathe, air in the wheel wells is essentially the same as outside the plane. At 18,000ft, experts say, hypoxia will set in, causing weakness, tremors, light-headedness and visual impairment. By 22,000ft, the stowaway will struggle to maintain consciousness as their blood oxygen level drops. Above 33,000ft, the lungs require artificial pressure to function normally. An FBI spokesman in Hawaii said the boy told authorities he did not remember the flight, suggesting that he was unconscious due to oxygen deprivation.

Without oxygen, nerve cells in the brain start to falter, resulting in dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, and loss of appetite and energy. Because the brain regulates much of the body’s metabolism, a de-oxygenated brain can lead to other organ failure as well. Fluid can build up in the lungs and brain and lead to potentially fatal swelling.

Closeup of a wheel well, which is a tight space filled with hydraulics and other cables and parts.

Wheel wells are extremely tight spaces filled with hydraulics and other cables and parts.

But if a strong-bodied individual is lucky enough to stand the cold and the lack of oxygen, there’s still the issue of falling out of the plane when the wheels are lowered for landing. This opens the equivalent of a trap door, turning a cramped but relatively sheltered space into one from which it would be easy to fall thousands of feet to the ground or water below. This is what happened to a 26-year-old man in 2012, who fell to his death in London as the flight from Angola began its descent at Heathrow Airport.

SO HOW CAN THE HUMAN BODY DO IT?

By entering a state of ‘suspended animation,’ which is akin to hibernation. Breathing, heart rate and brain activity can continue — but at a much slower-than-normal rate. Being younger helps the chances of survival, though surgeons may try to recreate this body state during surgery on older people.

While humans aren’t known to hibernate, researchers believe that incredible survival stories like this one may be made possible by a latent ability to hibernate that all mammals — including humans — possess. 

We think this may be a latent ability that all mammals have potentially even humans and we’re just harnessing it and turning it on and off, inducing a state of hibernation on demand,” cell biologist Mark Roth explained in an interview with Live Science. 

Dr. Evelina Grayver, a cardiologist at North Shore University in Manhasset, N.Y., told Live Science that the boy most likely lost consciousness due to the low oxygen level as the plane ascended, and then, the low temperatures probably put his cells into a frozen state.

Several doctors likened the body’s experience in a wheel well on a long flight to what happens when someone falls under the ice of a frozen pond. They may have no pulse when they are pulled out, but could be revived. 

“When it comes to hypothermia, all bets are off,” said Dr. Jay Lemery, a professor at the University of Colorado specializing in emergency medicine in the wilderness. A body shut down by extreme cold should be “presumed alive, until they are warm and dead.”

There have been rare cases of people going into states of suspended animation in extreme cold.

 In 2006, a 35-year-old man survived 24 days on a snowy mountainside in Japan. His body temperature had plummeted to 71 F (22 C), his organs had shut down and his metabolism had slowed to a crawl, yet he recovered fully from the incident.

In the case of the boy on the airplane, Dr. Grayver suspects the symbiotic relationship between low oxygen and low temperatures brought the metabolic processes of the boy’s cells to a halt.

 “When an organism suspends its biological processes, it cannot do anything wrong,” Grayver said.

As the plane descended to land, the cells would have rewarmed gradually and started functioning normally again, she said.

Further, some people may be able to withstand these extreme conditions better than others. For example, research suggests that genetic factors explain our susceptibility to altitude-related sickness, indicating that the effects of low oxygen climates are not the same for everyone. Further, young people may have an advantage when it comes to recovering from the physiological effects of oxygen deprivations. The brains of young people are more adaptable, which explains why comatose children and teens are more likely to recover (and recover fully) than older people.

 The boy’s young age likely also helped him survive because he probably didn’t have heart disease or congenital heart defects that could have caused fatal heart arrhythmias, Grayver said.

HOW FREQUENTLY DO PEOPLE SURVIVE?

This is not the first time someone has apparently survived by stowing away on an airplane. A teenage boy in Nigeria survived in the wheel well of a plane during a 35-minute flight at an altitude of about 25,000 feet (7,600 m). 

In 2000, Fidel Maruhi Tahiti survived the 4,000-mile journey from Tahiti to Los Angeles and, two years later, Victor Alvarez Molina made it from Cuba to Canada alive. In 2010, a 20-year-old Romanian survived a flight from Vienna to Heathrow stowed in the undercarriage, but only because the private jet flew below 25,000ft due to bad weather. All suffered severe hypothermia.

However, experts say that stowing away in a plane wheel well does not usually end well.

Federal Aviation Administration records show that of the 105 people known to have stowed away on flights around the world over the last 67 years, only 25 lived through the ordeal — a survival rate of just 23.8%. The FAA notes that the actual number of stowaways is likely higher than 105, because people could have stowed away and fallen out of the wheel well without anyone knowing.

In 1996, brothers Pardeep and Vijay Saini stowed away on a jet from Delhi to London. Pardeep survived the 11 1/2 hour flight, but his brother died.

In 2000, two Cuban teens sneaked onto a flight from Havana bound for London. A doctor ruled that the boys died of lack of oxygen probably 20 minutes into the flight, according to The Guardian. Ten years later, a 16-year-old runaway fell from a wheel well to his death in a Boston suburb in 2010 during a flight from Charlotte, N.C.

Prior to Sunday’s case, there were two known instances when someone stowed away on a flight that took off and landed within the United States. One was the fatal 2010 incident described above. The other was in 1972. The only other recorded instances are those in which someone flew to the United States from another country.

By all accounts, the boy’s survival is miraculous — but others shouldn’t expect the same luck. Howard Mell, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, reiterated this point:

“From the standpoint of science, this is a very lucky child. … It would be extremely ill-advised for anyone to try to duplicate his feat.”

 

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