It was an ordinary July afternoon, and John Baldock, a software engineer in his 20s, was sunbathing in his backyard in South London. It could have been his last tan, because he was a mere meter away from being crushed by a body that plunged right into his garden. The frozen body fell out of the blue, literally.
The impact left a crater in the ground, and a scar in John’s soul. Whatever tan he managed to cook up under the sun faded into a sickly, pale tint that covered him from head to toe. Shaking, trembling, and hyperventilating, he glanced at the obliterated body of a man who had just plummeted 3,500 ft. from the wheel well of a plane.
John wasn’t the only one to witness the horrific fall. 31-year-old Wil, also a software engineer from South-West London, was standing right outside his house in his pjs, sipping on Polish beer and squinting his eyes up at the planes going back and forth from Heathrow airport when he saw something fall out of the landing gear.
“At first I thought it was a bag,” he told interviewers. “But after a few seconds, it turned into quite a large object, and it was falling fast.” That’s when he assumed it was a heavy piece of machinery, or maybe a large suitcase. Many things came to his mind, but a human body wasn’t one of them. At least not at first.
Half blinded by the beaming sunrays, Wil was somehow able to decipher the details of the falling object. “In the last second or two of it falling, I saw limbs,” he noted, “I was convinced that it was a human body.” Wil rushed outside, hopped on his motorbike, and began speeding towards the fall.
That’s when he ran into John, who, according to Wil, had a “million-mile stare” on his face. “That was a human, wasn’t it?” Wil asked his terrified neighbor who did nothing but nod slowly in return. That’s when the sad reality “hammered down on [them], like a weight of bricks.” It was the body of a stowaway. A man who was so desperate to leave his country he was willing to risk his life to escape it.
The plane the stowaway had fallen out of was one of Kenya Airway’s jets, and upon notice, police were sent immediately to Heathrow to inspect the aircraft through and through. In the plane’s wheel wells, officers found a grubby khaki bag with the letters MCA written on it.
The rucksack contained some bread, a bottle of water, a bottle of Fanta and a pair of sneakers. “It was literally about survival – food and water and a pair of shoes,” police officer Paul Graves reported. It looks like the person who tried to leave Kenya didn’t have much on his mind other than flying off as fast as he could.
At the mortuary, authorities took samples of the stowaway’s DNA and ran his fingerprints through the police’s database. The DNA results came back but, sadly, no match came up. And, unfortunately, the fingerprints came out blank as well.
Detective Paul Graves was both frustrated and baffled by the outcome. How was it that no database held any information about this mysterious man? Many workplaces in Kenya require that their employees be fingerprinted, so it was bizarre that no source could identify him.
When news broke of this mysterious stowaway, reporters swarmed to the pavements of Offerton Road, interviewing neighbors and collecting all the information they could. Some details were entirely irrelevant, but they added to the general buzz, like the fact that the value of John’s home was £2.3m.
The news hopped on the opportunity to mention it. Here was an unidentified person from a developing country who had plummeted thousands of feet into one of the wealthiest areas in all of London. “It’s in your face,” officer Graves explained; “the meeting of worlds, at about 200 mph.”
From 1947 to 2020, a total of 128 people from all over the world have tried to smuggle themselves into countries by stowing their way in the underbelly of planes. More than 75% have died. This isn’t a surprising finding, considering the numerous dangers waiting for them the second they climb into the jet’s cavity.
The stowaway may fall from the wheel well during takeoff, as was the case for Australian schoolboy Keith Sapsford who tried to catch a flight from Sydney to Tokyo in February 1970 but rolled out the wheel well a little after takeoff.
Still, even if he was lucky enough to hold tight through the departure, there were so many other looming dangers that his chance for survival was terribly slim either way.
If you manage to crawl your way into the landing gear cabin and hold tight as the plane speeds further away from the ground, you’re not out of the clear yet. Many stowaways get crushed by the wheels as they retract into the cavity (as was the case for a young Cuban named Adonis Guerrero Barrios, who was crushed by the monstrous mechanics after climbing on a plane headed from Havana to Madrid in 2011).
If, miraculously, one manages to position themselves well and avoid the wheel’s forceful compression, they’re likely to pass out shortly after due to the impossibly cold temperature, which normally plummets to about -65F, a climate that induces severe hypothermia in an instant.
As if suffering from hypothermia or being crushed by the cold steel landing gear aren’t harsh enough ways to die, stowaways are also at risk for hypoxia, a condition that happens when the blood is incapable of drawing enough oxygen to the body’s tissues. A plane’s cruising altitude normally reaches around 35,000 feet, and the air pressure at that height makes it virtually impossible to draw oxygen from the air.
Last but not least, when the plane descends, the sudden decrease in air pressure can also lead to something called decompression sickness, a condition that causes gas bubbles to form in the body, leading to a variety of symptoms, some of which are fatal.
There’s physically no way for a person to remain conscious for hours on the underbelly of a plane. So, in most cases, stowaways fall from the wheel well during the plane’s descent. The one comforting bit is that they’re unconscious, so they don’t have to deal with the horror of being blown away into the sky.
In conclusion, the fact that some stowaways manage to come out alive is an absolute miracle.
And this begs the question – what is it about those extraordinary individuals who have been able to come out alive? “Something happens that we don’t fully understand,” said Paulo Alves, global director of the Aerospace Medical Association.
The human body is capable of reheating itself, which is why, if the person was fortunate enough to avoid a heart attack or brain damage from hypoxia and hypothermia, a gradual recovery of consciousness occurs. Some incredible survival stories include:
In 1969, 22-year-old Armando Socarras Ramirez managed to live through nearly 10 hours on a flight from Havana to Madrid. He suffered frostbite, but other than that, no long-lasting damage impacted his brain or any other area in his body.
In the mid-‘90s, 23-year-old Pardeep Saini survived a flight from Delhi to London. Sadly, his brother fell out of the plane as it descended towards Heathrow airport.
For three exhausting months, detective Paul Graves tried his best to identify the Kenyan stowaway but came up empty-handed. So, he decided to board a plane to Kenya in the hopes of uncovering any information that might assist the case. He traveled through slums all over Nairobi and spoke to different residents.
He also urged Nairobi airport to grant him access to camera recordings. The shots revealed that the plane landed from South Africa and sat for about five hours before being transferred to a departure gate. Recordings of the plane’s takeoff showed no sign of someone climbing into the underbelly, so it’s almost certain that the stowaway boarded the craft sometime during that five-hour break.
If you were able to get through security and somehow smuggle your way near the plane’s underbelly, hopping into the wheel well isn’t that difficult. You just have to climb up the cavity and shimmy your way into a stable position. So, let’s backtrack here, how did this Kenyan stowaway pass security?
Officials argued that security at Jomo Kenyatta International was tight. “[They said] there was no evidence of any obvious security breaches,” Graves explained. The only way for someone to crawl in like that was if they were working as a baggage handler or cleaner.
“You’re looking for a low-paid, low-educated person with access to the parking area,” David Learmont of the aviation news website FlightGlobal stated, adding, “It would be unlikely to be someone like a mechanic because they’d know that stowing away is not a good way to get a cheap flight, because they wouldn’t get to enjoy the other end.”
Workers at the Kenyan airport insisted that all their staff members were present. No one was missing, and police interrogations found no substantial evidence that any employee had assisted the stowaway in executing his plan.
The case was bewildering. And Graves felt that, despite flying to Kenya, he was no closer to uncovering the fallen man’s identity.
Paul Graves took the case to the media and tried to revive the story in the hopes of triggering someone’s memory. “What we [police] rely on really is the public and witnesses seeing things and telling us,” he explained. But the thing is, the Kenyan media wasn’t really happy about blasting the stowaway’s story all over the news.
For one, it’s embarrassing for the airport’s workers to admit to their security flaws, and two, the country itself is afraid that the rest of the world will wonder why its citizens are so desperate to leave that they’re willing to undertake such extreme measures.
Kenya’s airport, Jomo Kenyatta International, had received a category 1 security classification in 2017, two years prior to the incident. So, admitting that the stowaway was indeed someone from Kenya would mean that their airport security rating would drop. “For that reason, every police officer I’ve spoken to has been cagey,” Kenyan journalist Hillary Orinde admitted.
Detective Paul Graves ultimately managed to get Kenyan police to bring up the case in their police gazette, which he hoped would encourage officers to investigate it further. And when he returned to the U.K., he published a composite of the stowaway alongside a picture of his rucksack. What stood out the most were the initials – MCA.
Thanks to Graves’ persistence, news about a 29-year-old man named Paul Manyasi began to surface. It was reported that he was a cleaner at the airport, and his girlfriend, Irene, confirmed that he had the same rucksack and that the initials stood for “member of county assembly.” His mom added to the findings by saying she recognized his underpants.
Some journalists were skeptical about the new lead, claiming that things didn’t quite add up. When Willy Lusige, a reporter for Kenya’s KTN News, found the family of the so-called Paul Manyasi, they acted weird. “I expected because they had been told their family member was dead that there would be a somber mood,” he said, “but when I went there it was just a normal day.”
The father told Willy Lusige that a few white people came to visit them and handed them $200. “Money had changed hands,” Lusige explained, “and an illiterate father was convinced to go on record and say that his son was the stowaway.”
Lusige was right. Things weren’t adding up. The mother said she hadn’t seen her son in years, yet she recognized his underwear. But what really exposed the lie was the fact that the family’s son was actually named Shivonje Isaac, not Paul Manyasi, and he was alive and locked up in a prison in Nairobi.
So, the Paul Manyasi lead quickly disintegrated. The family published an apology and detective Graves was back to square one. Still confused by the whole ordeal, Kenyan journalist Orinder noted that “Kenya doesn’t have such a culture of people desperately trying to get to the West by any means possible.”
Kenya is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. A more pressing issue, according to Orinder, would be the many migrant workers who travel to the Gulf states and are mercilessly abused by their bosses.
After months of inquiry, Kenyan officers officially wrapped up their investigation. Due to the lack of evidence, Jomo Kenyatta International didn’t suffer any setbacks, and it retained its category 1 security status. That is, until a year later when another stowaway case surfaced.
A 16-year-old Kenyan boy was discovered above the main landing gear of a flight that originated from Kenya and landed in the Netherlands. Luckily, the boy was found alive, but it was clear to everyone that Kenya’s security system was far from secure.
For detective Paul Graves, the real question wasn’t how the stowaway made it on to the jet, it was why he did it in the first place. “We saw the aftermath of someone falling from an airplane,” he said, “but for me, the interesting part was, where did the story start?”
Graves isn’t one to get too emotional over work things. He’s seen murders, rapes and kidnaps. But for some reason, imagining a person huddled in the dark underbelly of a plane, slowly freezing to death, and then falling out into the sky like that threw him off more than anything else he’d seen. “I thought oh, blimey. It felt like such a desperate thing to do,” he confessed.
Officials still don’t know the name of the man who fell to Earth on June 30, 2019. All they know, or at least think they know, is what he experienced in those final terrifying moments. The deafening noise of the hydraulics. The frightening grunts of the engine.
We can only imagine how petrified the man was when he heard the footsteps of the boarding passengers above him. How helpless he felt as he wedged himself in and prayed that the wheels wouldn’t crush him. And then, lift-off. A sudden wave of chilly air. Getting colder and colder until he passed out.
The man who fell from the sky was buried in Lambeth cemetery on February 26, 2020. Four workers from Lambeth council dug him into the earth that crisp, cold morning. No mourners arrived at first. It was a nameless funeral that included nothing but brief chit-chat and mumbles.
“Considering he fell quite far,” one of the diggers remarked, “he was in reasonably good condition.”
Just before they lowered him to the ground, a man from the Kenyan embassy arrived. Dressed in a black suit, he stood in silence.
On the coffin, a metal plate reads: “Unknown (Male), Died 30th June 2019, Aged 30.”
Stowaways have been around since the early days of aviation. People wanting to get away from their home country, desperate to cross the borders, yet are too poor to do so. Tragically, they feel like the only thing left to do is risk their lives in an attempt to achieve a better one.
They escape for all kinds of reasons, from poverty to boredom to sheer despair and lack of meaning. Some even try to flee to reunite with their loved ones, as was the case for Abdi, a teenager who crawled into the wheel well of a Boeing 767 flying from California to Hawaii, explaining that he was trying to get back to his mom in Somalia.
One of the only stowaway women known to date is a Cuban lady who shipped herself to the States from the Bahamas in 2014. Other than her, nine more people from Cuba have smuggled themselves out of the country in a similar manner. Incredibly, one of them managed to survive, a man named Armando Socarras Ramirez.
He boarded the plane in the summer of 1969, at the ripe age of 17. Fearless and impulsive, he took the eight-hour flight from Havana to Madrid. He was found by the pilot, covered in ice and unconscious. “They called me the Popsicle!” Armando recalled.
Armando knew he wanted to flee Cuba since he was ten years old. He came up with the idea along with his good friend Jorge Pérez Blanco. Together, they tip-toed their way into the airport, and, with a rope, a torch, and cotton wool to stuff their ears with, they executed their plan.
As the aircraft’s engines roared madly, Pérez thought of backing out. With a little convincing by Armando, both young boys entered the wheel well, and the plane took off. “When it got up in the air,” Armando recalled, “the compartment started opening up to let the wheels come inside. I was hanging on with my fingertips to the edge of the compartment and being blown sideways by the wind.”
Armando’s finger went black from frostbite, but at least he managed to hang on. It was Pérez who didn’t make the journey. He fell out of the aircraft and was found alive and wounded on the runway in Havana. He was later charged and imprisoned.
Armando recalled how the wheels nearly crushed him when they retracted back into the cabin. He managed to position himself and wedge into the corner of the well. And once the compartment shut tight, everything went black and loud. “You became part of the noise. It made me shake. I put some cotton wool in my ears, but it didn’t work. When you become the noise, it’s beyond comprehension,” he explained.
Armando leaned back and sighed in relief. He made it. But this was only the beginning of a treacherous journey. Reality began to get fuzzy as the temperature plummeted and his senses grew blurry and numb. “It was very, very freezing,” he said, “and I was shivering and shaking.” He blacked out, and the next thing he knew, he was being carried into the airport in Madrid.
“I saw people around me, and the room was moving around, like I was dizzy,” he explained, “Everything was moving, the walls were moving, and the lights were moving from side to side.” He spent the next 52 days recovering in a hospital, in which he was visited by several reporters who were dumbfounded by his survival story.
Armando’s only regret is that many young Cubans followed in his footsteps. Most of them died.
Most stowaways tend to be men who are trying to flee their country (usually developing countries) and make their way to Europe or North America in the hopes of a better life. Better job opportunities, better resources, better treatment. They’re willing to go through one of the most dangerous journeys to do so.
Lisa Doyle, part of the Refugee Council in England, said: “We urge the government to provide more safe and regular travel routes for refugees as a vital way of preventing these tragic events from happening.”
Each airport must do its absolute best to inspect every nook in the plane before takeoff.
We might not have a definite number of how many stowaway trips have been attempted in the history of aviation, because not all stowaways make it to their target country. Some of them fall out of the sky far from the destination, as pilots can sometimes open the landing gear mid-flight to maneuver the airplane.
The sad truth is that most stowaway passengers die as they try to reach Europe and other places across the globe in hopes of a better life. They fly halfway across the world under extreme conditions to get closer to their dream destination, only to be thrown into the blue and land on top of a building, or crash into the sea, or collapse in someone’s backyard.