How do you survive a flight from California to Hawaii while crunched up in a wheel well at 37,000 feet?

Simple answer: No one knows.

Possible answer: human hibernation.

A 15-year-old boy evidently climbed into the wheel well of a jet to hitchhike his way across the Pacific and lived to tell about it. But how? Little oxygen. Frigid temperatures. Some would term it a medical miracle. Especially for a five and a half hour journey.

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But the story may best explained by a phenomenon similar to what’s seen when a young person falls into freezing water. The child is submerged for hours yet doesn’t drown and suffers no brain damage. A combination of factors kicks into play that keeps the body ticking –at a very slow rate.

Here’s how it might work for a plane ride.

First, a gradual drop in temperature as the plane climbs slows the body’s metabolism to a crawl.

As the metabolism slows, the body — and brain — needs less oxygen. And that’s what is available as the plane climbs to cruising altitude — hardly any oxygen.

The drop in outside temperature to 70 degrees below zero may have been tempered by the heat of the plane’s tires, and warm hydraulic lines as it took off and climbed, but not by much.

So the brain and other organs don’t need much as body temperature drops. (No one knows how far it drops, but in one case several years ago measured one wheel well survivor at 79 degrees.)

You pass out, but you may stay alive … barely.

Since 1947, 105 people have been known to try and snag a ride with the landing gear. Twenty five survived—a rate of 24 percent.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the smartest way to fly the friendly skies. Even though this teen seemed fairly stable after being found wandering the tarmac, there’s a sizable chance of subtle brain damage as well as damage to internal organs such as the kidneys.

So even if you think a crunched middle seat is a horrible way to travel, it beats the journey this teenager put himself through.


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