Stowaway dies after fall from 767 wheel well

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — About four times a year, somewhere in the world, someone sneaks into the wheel well of a parked jet and attempts to survive an incredibly dangerous ride, frequently to the United States.

Usually, the stowaways die, as was the case Thursday, when a man climbed into the wheel well of a Miami-bound cargo jet while it was on a ramp in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic.

Shortly after takeoff from Las Americas International Airport, at 1:45 p.m., air traffic controllers saw a man fall out of the Boeing 767. The body was found by airport workers and the runway was shut down for 45 minutes.

The jet, operated by Amerijet International, proceeded to Miami International Airport, where it landed safely. Miami-Dade police and federal aviation authorities inspected the jet’s wheel area.

Dominican authorities are investigating how the man gained access to the plane and whether he was an airport worker. He wasn’t carrying any personal documents.

In the past 15 years, 68 people have tried to stow away in the wheel wells of 58 flights, and 59 of those died, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The vast majority of the stowaways slipped onto planes in other countries and many of them attempted to fly to the United States.

Usually, airborne stowaways freeze to death, as temperatures at high altitude are 40 to 50 degrees below zero. Or they die from a lack of oxygen, said Kathleen Bergen, FAA spokeswoman.

“It’s as cold the top of Mount Everest,” she said.

In May 1996, a young man’s body fell to the ground in Kendall, Fla., prompting nearby residents to hear a loud “thud,” authorities said. It was believed the man dropped when a jet landing at Miami Internatioal Airport extended its landing gear.

On Dec. 24, 2001, Alberto Vazquez Rodriguez, 17, and Maikel Fonseca Almira, 16, two Cuban military school cadets, sneaked into the wheel well of a British Airways jet, flying from London to Mexico. Both died, as their bodies dropped from the plane. According to a note left by one of the boys, they were attempting to reach the United States.

In other cases, stowaways have survived.

In March 2004, a ramp worker at Miami International Airport noticed a man climbing down a wheel on an American Airlines flight after it arrived from Santo Domingo. The man was in good condition after having braved freezing temperatures for an hour and 40 minutes. The stowaway was repatriated.

In September 1998, Emilio Dominguez, 23, climbed into the wheel well of an Iberia Airlines jet in Honduras and flew to Miami to find work. He was found by mechanics at Miami International Airport, cold and disoriented but otherwise in good condition. He was returned to Honduras.

Thursday’s incident was the second in as many weeks. On Feb. 8, a man was found dead in the wheel well of a Delta flight after it landed in Tokyo. Although the Boeing 777 had taken off from New York, authorities believe the man initially snuck onto the plane when it was in South Africa.

Sari Koshetz, spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration, said it would be difficult for someone other than an airline ramp worker to gain access to a plane while it is parked at a U.S. airport.

She said each airport is responsible for developing a security plan to ensure people cannot gain access to planes on ramps.

“The TSA reviews and approves these plans, and airports and airlines are subject to regulatory inspections by TSA inspectors,” she said.

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