Hibernation saves runaway from frost and oxygen loss

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

wheel well
The wheel well of a plane is most definitely not a healthy place to catch a flight to Hawaii.

Most runaway kids might disappear for a few hours at the local park before dragging their heels back home in surrender. Not so for a 15-year-old California teenager who recently stowed away on a Hawaiian Airlines 767! In fact, he managed to climb into the wheel well that normally houses the plane’s wheels, and survived a 5.5 hour flight.

At first glance, you might think being cramped up with grinding machine parts in the wheel well is the most dangerous part about this kid’s journey. However, the real threat comes from being exposed to the frosty temperatures way up high, as well as the low oxygen levels that make it hard to breathe. In fact, at 38,000 feet, the percentage of available oxygen is a fraction of how much there is at sea level, and temperatures can drop to minus 50-85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Based on a Federal Aviation Administration study, stowaways don’t usually survive such harsh conditions. However, they sometimes manage to do so by entering a state of hibernation, kind of like bears do when they snuggle up to sleep during the winter. Hibernation is a state of inactivity, where the body’s processes slow down, lowering body temperature, reducing breathing, and slowing heart rate.

How exactly does the body get into this hibernation mode? Well, a lack of oxygen causes a condition called hypoxia, so when the boy lost consciousness, his body likely went into a deep trance-like state. Being young also increased his chances of survival, since the stress such harsh conditions cause on the body can be fatal. 

Featured image courtesy of Kool Cats Photography on Flickr. Image of wheel well courtesy of Kozuch on Wikipedia.