Science News

Plane Stowaway

Thu, 24th Apr 2014

Dave Ansell, Kate Lamble

Part of the shows Plane Stowaway and Building the Future

This week, a teenage boy survived the 5 hour flight from California to Hawaii, Airplane Wheelhidden in the wheel well of a plane.  Experts are astonished that he seems to be unharmed- but just how amazing is his survival? Here are Kate Lamble and Dave Ansell with your quick fire science about travelling as an aeroplane stowaway:

·        - At ground level, the air we breathe is 21% oxygen. As you climb higher, this percentage doesn’t change, but the reduction in air pressure means there is less air, and so less oxygen available.

·        - Long haul flights can reach heights of over 30,000 feet. At this height, air pressure is so low that there is only a third of the amount of oxygen available than is available at sea level.

·        - The reduced pressure also makes it harder for the oxygen to pass through the membranes of the lungs and into the blood stream.

·        - As low as 10,000 feet, hypoxia can set in because of a lack of oxygen. This leads to dizziness, light headedness, and eventually loss of consciousness.

·       -  As well as reduced oxygen, the stowaway would have had to contend with temperatures as low as -62 degrees Celsius.

·       -  Hypothermia occurs when body temperature drops below 35 degrees celcius. Initial symptoms are shivering and confusion and in some cases it can lead to death.

·        - However, hypothermia can be protective, as it slows down the metabolism, meaning you can survive with less oxygen.

·       -  Sometimes, hypothermia is even induced in patients suffering hypoxia after something like a stroke.

·        - It may be that the stowaway entered a kind of ‘hibernation’ state, reducing his metabolism and so his need for oxygen, and allowing him to survive.

·        - Although this time, the stowaway survived, others have not been so lucky. In fact, only a quarter of attempts are thought to be successful.

·       -  Even if you survive the majority of the flight, most people will be unconscious by the time the landing gear is deployed, so will fall out of the plane when it is still hundreds of feet up.

·       -  The number of failed attempts may be even higher than recorded, as many people may have fallen into oceans, and never been found.

·       -  However, there may also be unrecorded successful attempts, if the survivor escaped the airport without being detected.


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