British investigators were working to identify on Tuesday a man who apparently fell out of the landing gear compartment of a London-bound Kenya Airways flight and plunged to his death in the garden of a home, police said.
Though it is not yet clear what motivated the stowaway, the incident is the latest case of someone hiding in a plane’s undercarriage and raises questions about security at airports, in addition to highlighting the extreme risks people are willing to take to migrate.
Kenya Airways Flight 100 had taken off for the nine hour journey to London’s Heathrow Airport on Sunday.
As the plane was descending, the stowaway fell out of the landing gear compartment, where police later discovered a bag, water and some food. His body hit the ground in a residential neighborhood in Clapham in southern London, next to a sunbather, the BBC reported.
Prior stowaway incidents have prompted questions about security at airports. The accessibility of landing-gear compartments has suggested that intruders could exploit this vulnerability to place explosive devices.
Kenya’s airport authority said it was investigating the security breach, saying in tweets that the “incident is being treated with the seriousness it deserves.”
Jambo! We have been informed by authorities in London that on June 30th at approximately 1541hrs (UK Time) a body of a yet to be identified male stowaway was discovered in South London. The body was traced to the undercarriage of KQ flight 100 that departed from JKIA. 1/2
— Kenya Airports (@KenyaAirports) July 1, 2019
Similar cases have also served to underscore the dramatic risks refugees and migrants take on their path to Europe or other destinations by boat, on land or – far less frequently – on planes. In almost all cases worldwide in which identities were eventually confirmed, hopes for a better life abroad appear to have been the motive behind the desperate attempts.
Only one in four people have survived stowing away in an airplane’s landing gear compartment, according to 2012 data collected by the Federal Aviation Administration which tracked nearly 100 incidents.
One of the few lucky ones was a teenager who ran away from home and survived a five hour long flight from California to Hawaii in the landing-gear compartment.
Most died from a lack of oxygen, outside temperatures below negative 60 degrees Fahrenheit or from being crushed to death by the landing-gear.
One resident who claims to have seen the man who fell out of Kenya Airways Flight 100 on Sunday described him as “an ice block” to the BBC.
Those who survived similar ordeals usually boarded far shorter flights cruising at lower altitudes, including one man who made it from Vienna to London in 2010. But in 2015, researchers were puzzled when a man survived the journey from Johannesburg, to London, where he was still conscious enough to cling onto the landing-gear compartment to avoid falling out. He was hospitalized with serious injuries, but discharged two months later and transferred to an immigration facility.
A second stowaway on the same flight fell onto shops in Richmond, a suburban London borough.
His death came three years after 26-year old José Matada fell onto the streets of an affluent west London suburb from an Angola to Britain flight. The Mozambique man had exchanged messages with a former employer, indicating that he may be “traveling to Europe for a better life”, according to The Guardian.
Stowaway deaths may have become more frequent as global migration numbers surged over the last decade, but they are not new. In 1999, two boys aged between 14 and 16 were found frozen to death and deprived of oxygen in the wheel bay of a Sabena Airlines plane, which they had boarded hoping to make it to Brussels.
Alongside official documents and family photos, the two friends, Yaguine Koita and Fode Tounkara, were carrying a letter in which they described “the suffering of us, the children and young people of Africa,” including “war, disease, malnutrition” and “a great lack of education and training” for children.
“And if you see that we have sacrificed and risked our lives, it is because there is too much suffering in Africa and we need you to struggle against poverty and put an end to war in Africa,” they wrote.
Directly addressing the readers, they added: “(We) appeal to you to excuse us very, very much for daring to write this letter to the great personages to whom we owe much respect.”
The two boys’ death and their letter hit a nerve in Belgium, which was struggling to confront its colonial past at the time. The same year the two boys died, Belgian researchers were fiercely debating if the country’s death toll in its former colonies had been vastly understated.
The two boys’ fate was turned into a movie in 2006. But to human rights advocates, ceremonies and cultural references in their honor could barely hide the realities of migration law. Had they arrived alive and without the public attention their death triggered, Belgian commentators wrote in 1999, they would have likely been transferred to a deportation center.