The Dutch police said that they had found a man in the front wheel section of a cargo plane that landed in Amsterdam on Sunday morning from Johannesburg via Nairobi.
First Lt. Mike Hofman said in an email Monday that after the man was found, officials discovered that he was still breathing. A medical helicopter arrived to provide care, and the man, who has not been named, is currently in the hospital and able to communicate, Hofman said.
It is rare that stowaways survive flights because of the low oxygen levels in wheel storage compartments and the extreme cold as the aircraft climbs to cruising altitude. In the past five years, Dutch authorities have discovered seven stowaways in the Netherlands. Two survived, according to Hofman.
Robert van Kapel, a spokesman for the Dutch military police, said Monday that police were conducting an investigation into the man’s circumstances, and whether his trip constituted an illegal crossing of borders and whether it was a case of human smuggling.
“We want to know who he is, where he came from, how he got onto the plane, and how he was able to survive,” van Kapel said, adding that officials did not know the man’s nationality or age, but that authorities believed he was between 18 and 30.
He said it was unclear whether the man boarded the plane in Johannesburg, which is an 11-hour flight from Amsterdam, or in Nairobi, where the plane made a stop. Officials were also seeking to determine whether the man got help boarding the plane, he said.
There have been other instances in recent years of stowaways boarding flights to Europe and the United States, in some cases to escape circumstances in their home countries. In 2019, the body of a man believed to have been a stowaway on a plane bound for London from Nairobi plunged from the plane and landed in the backyard of a house, landing 3 feet away from a sunbather.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said that between 1947 and November 2021, it recorded 132 people who had tried to hide in the wheel wells or other areas of commercial aircraft worldwide. Of those people, 102, or about 77%, died, said Rick Breitenfeldt, a spokesman for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
Temperatures in wheel bays can drop to as low as minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit for flights that reach cruising altitudes of 40,000 feet, according to a separate study on stowaways by the FAA.
Another FAA report found that while successful stowaways spur others to attempt similar journeys, few survive the part of the journey where the flight is cruising at high altitude. Those who do are often unconscious during descent and can fall to their deaths when the landing gear is lowered. It is likely that some stowaways have been undocumented because they fell into oceans or remote land areas, the report found.