A teenage stowaway has made a “miraculous” recovery after surviving hours in sub-zero temperatures on a 4,800-mile journey inside a jet’s landing gear.
The 16-year-old’s extraordinary passage from Kenya to Holland, with stops in Turkey and Britain, was discovered after he fell from the cargo plane onto the runway at Maastricht Aachen airport in Limburg. He was taken to hospital with extreme hypothermia but within days was declared fit and well.
“For us, it is a miracle,” Marvin Engh, a spokesman for the Dutch police, said. “Usually when someone stows away like this, they die because of the cold or a lack of oxygen.”
An investigation found that the youngster concealed himself on a Turkish Airlines A330 aircraft at Nairobi’s international airport last Wednesday. The flight made stops in Istanbul and Stansted before landing at Maastricht on Thursday afternoon.
With commercial flights reaching altitudes of about 38,000ft, the chances of survival for stowaways are slim. Hiding in the landing gear carries a risk of freezing to death, or dying due to a lack of oxygen.
Yet there have been astonishing stories of survival. In 2015, a Mozambican stowaway lived to tell the tale of clinging to the undercarriage of a jumbo jet during an overnight flight from Johannesburg to London. The friend who was with him died as he fell onto the roof of an office building shortly before the plane landed.
Detectives said the teenager is Kenyan, and is seeking asylum, but was carrying no documents. Officials are now attempting to trace his family and investigate whether human traffickers were involved in his feat.
The incident also highlights an alarming laxity at Jomo Kenyatta International (JKI) in Nairobi. In July 2019, the body of a stowaway narrowly missed a student sunbathing in his garden in London, after tumbling from a Kenya Airways Boeing 787.
The stowaway in the latest incident is thought to have climbed into the wheel well after breaching the airport fence at east Africa’s busiest hub. Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum and home to 2.5 million, is close to JKI and the sight of aircraft overhead brings the prospect of a new life tantalizingly close.
It is not known where the teenager hid away on board the Turkish Airlines plane, but there is sufficient space in most commercial aircraft for a small adult to fold himself into its landing gear area. Once the wheels retract, a person would more or less be secure in the body of the aircraft although exposed to extreme cold and a lack of oxygen.
The most common causes of death include crushing when the mechanized landing gear retracts into the wheel well; and hypothermia and frostbite as temperatures plunge to minus 60C. When the aircraft reaches an altitude of 18,000ft hypoxia sets in, with the whole or part of the body deprived of an adequate oxygen supply, causing weakness, tremors, light-headedness and eyesight problems.
By 22,000ft a stowaway is likely to fall unconscious as the blood oxygen level drops. Above a typical long-haul cruising altitude of 35,000ft, lungs require artificial pressure to function normally.
As a boy, Simon George loved watching the trains rumble past at the busy railway junction in a hamlet near his home.
He spent long days during his school holidays in the early 1980s, from the age of 12 to 15, sitting on embankments or perched on footbridges over the tracks at Heaton Lodge Junction, just west of Mirfield, West Yorkshire, as he marveled at the sights, sounds and power of the locomotives and goods wagons loaded with coal and steel.
It was, he says, his favorite place, and — despite growing up to run a successful supercar driving experience company and owning a Lamborghini himself — the happy memories of those innocent days, and the excitement he felt at seeing a train emerge from way down the tracks and waiting to see exactly which type it was, never left him.
So Simon, 52, decided to recreate the scene, as exactly as possible, in scale model form.
Now, more than seven years on, and after laying 2½ miles of O gauge track, taking pains to get houses, factories, and even individual trees and manhole covers in the roads in the right place, installing 10,000 individual bracken ferns and other exact replica features of the landscape, his masterpiece is 199ft 8in long, 40ft wide, and is said to be Britain’s biggest model railway.
He was — ‘luckily’, he laughs — single when he began. ‘I would’ve been divorced if I wasn’t! It was a long process,’ he adds. He has since become engaged to Marie Oakley, 38. ‘I didn’t tell her about the railway for a few weeks because I thought she’d run away screaming,’ he said. ‘But she was very impressed. She’s interested in art and viewed it very much like a painting but in 3D.’
Simon sold his 50 percent share in the events firm in 2018 to concentrate on his railway full-time and turn it into a business. Along the way, it cost around $347,000 to make — helped by sponsorship from Danish model railway company Heljan.
Since then, he has spent up to 12 hours a day building the model, which sits on more than 100 5ft interlocking boards. He had to rent a basement in an old factory after it outgrew his garage, spilled over into a spare bedroom and finally became too big for his home altogether.
Simon spent two years researching the layout of the junction — where the lines from Manchester and Huddersfield meet — via old photographs he found on the Internet, including one which, to his astonishment, included his young self. He told the Daily Mail last week: ‘Railway enthusiasts had a poor image for a long time. But since people like Rod Stewart, Jools Holland and Pete Waterman have come out, and people have seen their incredible layouts, it’s become more accepted.
‘Now I just want everyone to be able to see my railway and enjoy it. It is transportable — I designed it so it fits into three articulated lorries.’
Simon, who did nearly all the work himself apart from some help from computer software experts, reckons the model is three months away from being finished. He plans, once lockdown restrictions allow, to put it on display in vacant shops around the country — so people can enjoy the views he so loved as a boy.