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Aviation Blog - Jay Ratliff

16 Year Old Stowaway Reveals Security Risk


All it takes is a 16 year old teen to show us how airport security needs a great deal of attention…and fast.

On Sunday a 16 year old was able to jump the perimeter fence at the San Jose Airport and approach a Hawaiian Airlines 767 as it was preparing to depart for Kahului, Maui. The young man climbs into the wheel well of the jet and remains there as the flight departs for Hawaii.

It deserves noting here that we have reports of more than 100 attempts in the U.S. over the past 70 years of people trying to hop aboard a commercial jet in such a manner. Some try to climb into the wheel well, while a few others (for whatever the reason) actually held onto the landing gear as it was being retracted and fell to their death. In all, there is approximately a 1-in-4 chance of survival for those who make the attempt.

Stowaways must approach the aircraft undetected, then face an immediate challenge of being crushed by the landing gear as it retracts upon takeoff. As the plane climbs to more than 30,000 feet the lack of oxygen creates hypoxia and if that is not enough the freezing temperatures of more than 70 degrees below zero can cause hypothermia. If someone is able to endure all of that the last hazard is when the wheel well is dropped upon final approach to the destination, which is where many an attempt has ended tragically.

The focus right now is on the condition of the 16 year old, who seems to be recovering quite well and it is still unclear whether or not he will face any criminal charges for his actions. However, the real question here that begs to be answered is how anyone could approach a commercial jet at a busy airport and climb aboard without anyone noticing?

Surprise: It’s not that difficult.

After the attacks of 9/11 we saw a huge increase in spending as security measures and equipment were upgraded inside the airport. Sadly, very little of that money was spent to create a safer environment for aircraft on the tarmac or those on the runway as the flight prepares for departure.

Each time a report like this one from Sunday surfaces I cringe, because it is yet another reminder of how vulnerable we are. Had this kid been a terrorist, intent on inflicting harm, it could have been an explosive device that was placed on the plane instead, deigned to immediately blow up or explode at a later time when the plane is in the air.

How many more stories like the one from Sunday occur before we see action on the part of the Federal Aviation Administration to improve airport security?

I have been told in the past that this type of situation is rare and does not deserve an overreaction. What that translates to is that the problem will take money to fix and that is not going to happen – the risk percentage here is simply too low. What bull. I suspect if 30 terrorists were able to gain access to an airplane before it took off, placing explosives on the planes that later killed 6,000 people we would then consider it a real threat.

I pray that we do not wait that long to act.

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