THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Family wants to know how teen snuck onto plane

December 14, 2010

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CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Family and friends of a North Carolina teen who stowed away in an airplane's wheel well said Tuesday they want to know why airport security didn't stop him from sneaking on and ultimately dying after he plunged several thousand feet.

They say they will be haunted by thoughts of 16-year-old Delvonte Tisdale's death until they find out how he was able to sneak aboard a Boston-bound US Airways plane last month on the tarmac at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

"If Delvonte was able to get on a plane, what about a terrorist? Where was security?" the Rev. James Woodson, the family's pastor, said Tuesday.

The North Carolina airport asked the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to head up an investigation into how Tisdale was able to evade security and climb aboard the Boeing 737, police spokesman Bob Fey said. The Transportation Security Administration is also investigating. The agency on Tuesday declined to comment.

But in a statement, TSA spokeswoman Jonella Culmer said officials were working with the airport, which is responsible security around the airport's grounds.

Several telephone messages left by The Associated Press for Jerry Orr, the airport's director, were not returned Tuesday. But Orr told the Charlotte Observer that the airport doesn't plan any special review of security.

Like most airports, Charlotte is surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with strands of barbed wire. Passengers are sometimes randomly patted down by TSA agents or have to walk through full-body scanners.

"You would think they would want to know what happened so that it doesn't happen again," Woodson said.

Lula Smith, Delvonte's grandmother, said the family is having a hard time dealing with the boy's death.

"You think of Delvonte falling out of that plane. You don't want to think about it. You don't want to. But you can't help it," she said.

Tisdale's severely damaged body was found Nov. 15 in Milton, Mass. Investigators said he fell out when the plane lowered its landing gear on the approach to Boston.

Experts say he was probably dead before the plane prepared to land.

At 20,000 feet, the air inside a wheel well can get thin and cold -- sometimes dropping to more than 20 below zero.

John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said a stowaway would have lost consciousness because of the lack of oxygen and extreme cold at that altitude.

"He was being held in the wheel well by the wheel itself, and when the landing gear extended, it was holding him up and it was no longer there and he simply fell out of the wheel well," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration said there have been 86 stowaway attempts. Only 18 people survived. The last time someone tried it on a domestic flight was in 1972.

Norfolk District Attorney William Keating said he informed federal transportation safety officials and was worried about the security breach. His office became involved in the case because investigators first thought Tisdale's death was a homicide.

Family members said last week Tisdale was a member of the Air Force ROTC program at North Mecklenburg High School near Charlotte. His father, Anthony, said the family had moved from Greensboro to Charlotte in the summer so the teen could join that program. Anthony Tisdale said his son was happy in Charlotte and stayed out of trouble.

But Delvonte Tisdale's brother, Anthony Tisdale Jr., and other family members said the teen was unhappy in North Carolina and had never wanted to leave Baltimore, where he had lived earlier.

Delvonte Tisdale had argued with his father, who was strict, Anthony Tisdale said.

"It was too much for him," Anthony Tisdale Jr. said. "He took away his cell phone. They were always arguing."

Delvonte Tisdale was cremated, and his father plans to take the ashes back to Baltimore and meet with family in a few days, Woodson said.

He said the family is working through a lot of pain and just wants to have closure by finding out what happened.

"He could not have known the destination of the plane on the tarmac," Woodson said. "Why he ran away and what happened, we just don't know."