Teenage airline stowaway may have survived by going into suspended animation

We don't hear about suspended animation very often outside the pages of science fiction novels. However, it seems in the case of the teenager who flew from California to Hawaii in the wheel-well of a Boeing 767, we may have a very public, real-world example.

According to the Associated Press, the 16-year-old runaway picked Hawaiian Airlines Flight 45 at random, sneaking onto the tarmac and climbing up into the jetliner's wheel well before it took off. Once the flight was in the air, it ascended to a final cruising altitude of 38,000 feet, or over 11 kilometres above the ground, and remained at that altitude for most of the five and a half hour flight from San Jose, Calif. to Maui, Hawaii. Since the wheel well of the plane has none of the comforts of the cabin, not even heat or air pressurization, the boy would have been subjected to extreme conditions that had a very good chance of killing him. For comparison, the 'death zone' for mountain climbers, where the oxygen content in the air reaches levels too low for what we need to live, starts at around 8,000 metres. That's less than 80 per cent of the way for what this boy endured — air pressure at just one-fifth of what it was when he boarded, with only 23 per cent of the normal oxygen content and temperatures down to -56 C or lower.

Based on the records of the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute, 105 people have been known to choose this highly-inadvisable method of travel over the past 67 years, and only 25 have survived to tell the tale. So, with less than a one-in-four chance of survival, how did this boy do it?

It seems that the most likely explanation is that the combination of cold and lack of oxygen put him into a state of suspended animation. As the pressure and oxygen levels dropped, he would have quickly passed out, as he simply wouldn't have been able to breathe properly and get enough oxygen into his bloodstream. However, the extreme cold would have caused his bodily functions — breathing, heart rate, nervous system — to slow down, reducing his need for oxygen.

The state he was in for the flight is very similar to hibernation. Doctors have already used this in many cases, which they call therapeutic hypothermia, and a hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is even planning on using a technique like this on gunshot and stabbing victims, to see if this state of suspended animation (or 'emergency preservation') helps in treatment and healing of wounds.

As the plane descended again in Hawaii, the air pressure, oxygen levels and temperatures would have slowly increased, bringing him out of that state slow enough that he could be awake when they landed in Maui (albeit in a dazed condition).

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One thing that may have contributed to this boy's survival is the enclosed space of the wheel well. If he was exposed to the extreme cold at that altitude, as well as the 'winds' generated by the plane flying along at its normal cruising speed of 851 kilometres per hour, the wind chills he experienced would have been off the scale. The constant flow of air would have quickly sapped his body heat, causing severe hypothermia that would have sent him into shock, and he would have likely died very shortly thereafter. However, since the wheel well is designed to close completely, to make the plane as aerodynamic as possible, the reasonably-sealed environment would have sheltered him from those wind chills. He still would have passed out from the lack of oxygen, but a combination of heat from the wheels due to take-off and from the wheels' hydraulic system (according to the FAA), and possibly even his own body heat, may have allowed him to survive.

As for what's in store for him now, it seem that he hasn't suffered any severe impairment from his trip (with his age possibly being a factor in that), although doctors will likely have to evaluate him for any long-term effects of the hypoxia he endured. At least he won't be charged with a crime after all this, but he's very lucky to be alive.

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