БƗƗҚ.11 // Safe Area Earth

In memory of the KQ100 stowaway

(Warning: this one is on the heavier side.)

Exactly a year ago -  June 30, 2019 - Kenya Airways Flight 100 took off at 9:30AM local time from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, located on the southeastern edge of Nairobi. It was sunny and about 65 degrees that Sunday morning, expected to rise to 77 degrees later in the day. 4,200 miles and nine hours separated the plane from its destination at London Heathrow Airport, where it was also 65 degrees, rising to a high of 73.

Everything appeared normal for the passengers and crew of KQ100, as well as for anybody on the ground who happened to look up from places with names like Nakuru, Khartoum, Marsa Matruh, Kriti, Dubrovnik, Neum, Trieste, Innsbruck, Saarbrücken, Calais, or Canterbury to see the plane traveling north northeast overhead. Perhaps somewhere the altitude and air conditions and engine thrust combined to create a contrail that somebody found beautiful. Perhaps somebody else noticed the distinctive wing curve and nacelle shape that gave the plane away as a Boeing 787. Maybe somebody saw the plane and was moved to pursue a career in aviation. Or a career fighting for higher carbon emission taxes on aircraft. 

As day turned to dusk in Nairobi, the summer sun was still shining bright over England and a man in his late 20s named John was sunbathing in his back garden in the London neighborhood of Clapham. As KQ100 descended through 3,500 feet on approach to Heathrow, the pilots lowered the landing gear and unwittingly releasing either a man or the body of a man (it is unknown if he was alive at this point), who/which, 13 seconds later, slammed into the earth just a meter from John, pulverizing a segment of stone walkway. 

The Metropolitan Police arrived and quickly determined that the body in John’s garden had been a stowaway on a plane bound for Heathrow. This was corroborated by authorities at the airport who found a bag with food and some clothing stuffed into the left rear landing gear on KQ100. With this information, the crime scene was shut down and by the next day the police reported that “the death is not being treated as suspicious.” 

The bag, pictured with its contents, found inside the landing gear of KQ100. (Source: Metropolitan Police). 

There were a few other news stories that emerged and lingered for a couple of days. First, there was the “miracle” that nobody on the ground was hurt: had the pilots opened the landing gear just a second later, the stowaway would have missed John’s garden and landed in a busy pedestrian area. Second, there was concern for John, who was understandably shaken by what had happened. And third was the question of what this all meant for the Kenyan economy, a question largely mitigated by news on July 3 that the stowaway was likely an airport employee. This was deemed good news, as it meant that the aviation authorities did not need to review their passenger security procedures in light of the incident. Such a review would have threatened the airport’s FAA Category One status, which in turn would have disrupted Kenya Airways’ flagship Nairobi-New York route, which had begun only a few months prior.

Jambo! (Source: Twitter)

Very little emerged about the stowaway himself until November, when Sky News reported in a since-redacted article that he was an airport cleaner named Paul Manyasi. This was immediately disputed by Kenyan authorities, the cleaning company he was claimed to have worked for, and also by the man whose photo was mistakenly used in the Sky News article to identify the stowaway. This mix-up led to a series of follow-up pieces (including a Tanzanian news article entitled: “Cedric Shivonje : I am not the man who fell from the London skies”), but nothing more about who the stowaway actually was, why he boarded the plane, or how exactly he died.

Stowing yourself into the landing gear of a plane is just about as dangerous as it sounds like it is. The first major risk you run is being crushed or burned by the wheels as they are retracted into the plane after takeoff. As the plane ascends, air gets colder, oxygen gets thinner, and the heat generated from the retracted wheels dissipates. Eventually, you’ll be traveling 550 miles per hour at 35,000 feet in temperatures reaching -85F. Hypothermia and oxygen deprivation are guaranteed, which means that you will almost definitely pass out. You’ll also likely encounter problems common to deep sea divers like decompression sickness and acidosis. And hearing loss. It’s very loud. As the plane descends, the temperature will rise and oxygen will increase, at which point you will hopefully regain both consciousness and dexterity. This is important, because when the landing gear gets extended, you’ll need to physically restrain yourself in the wheel well so as not to fall out or get crushed before the plane reaches the gate and comes to a complete stop and the fasten seatbelt sign is turned off. 

The FAA reports 27 survivors of 113 known attempts (24%) on flights departing from or landing in the United States between 1947-2015. They also acknowledge that the actual number is probably much higher, as people have likely fallen into bodies of water undetected. When I originally researched this topic last year, Wikipedia was reporting a similar survival rate on their List of wheel-well stowaway flights. “This transport-related list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it,” reads the preface to the list, stretching my understanding of what constitutes “transport-related”.

Details of stowaways are sparse: details of the majority of deceased individuals remain unknown, and they are correspondingly memorialized (alphabetically) as: Asian, 50s; Cameroonian male, 34; Chinese male, 23; Georgian national, 22 (presumably); Male; Male, 13; Male, 17; Male, 17; Male, 17 and a second unknown; Male, 18; Male, 19; Male, 30; Male, 35; Male, adolescent; Nigerian national; Romanian male, 20; Two boys, 12 and 14; Two men from Trinidad; Two Mongolian boys, about 9 and 12; Two unidentified men; Unidentified; Unidentified; Unidentified African male; Unidentified African man; Unidentified Dominican male; Unidentified male; Unidentified male; Unidentified male; Unidentified male; Unidentified male; Unidentified male; Unidentified male; Unidentified male; Unidentified male; Unidentified male; unidentified male, 24; Unidentified male, 40s; Unidentified man; Unidentified man, about 24; Unidentified stowaway; Unidentified stowaway; Unknown; Unknown; Unknown African male; Unknown boy, about 10; Unknown Dominican male; Unknown male; Unknown male; Unknown male; Unknown male; Unknown male; Unknown male; Unknown male; Unknown male teenager; Unknown male, 19; Unknown male, 20; Unknown male, 20s; Unknown male, 30s; Unknown male, about 25; Unknown migrant worker; Unknown youth; and Unknown youth, 20/21. 

But even if you survive, there is no guarantee of a new life in the place that you’ve just arrived. On September 13, 1998, 23-year-old Emilio Dominguez left behind his parents and three brothers in hopes of finding work abroad. He snuck into the wheel well of an Iberia Airlines jet at Ramón Villeda Morales International Airport in Honduras, hiding for nearly 24 hours before Flight 6130 took off for Miami International Airport the next day. Upon landing 2.5 hours later, he staggered out of the plane in jeans and a t-shirt and was quickly descended on by a “small army of paramedics, police, Customs officials, and immigration agents.” He was sent back to Honduras on an Iberia flight the next day.

Given the extreme risk present at every step of the way, it is easy to write off airplane stowaways as acting senselessly. But, for the most part, people do it to escape persecution and/or to create a better life for themselves and family that they have left behind. In other words, they do it for reasons that can easily be made sense of, and their desperation is an indictment on the rest of us, not of them.

In the U.S. southwest, on Greek Islands, there are bodies crashing into gardens every day. The very least we can do is choose to ignore the officials and reporters who will inevitably come by, take a look around, and tell us Go home, there is nothing suspicious to see here.

The yard in Clapham where the stowaway landed. (Source: Evening Standard)

Thanks for reading,

— Grif