Incredible Story Of A Man Who Stowed Away In The Wheel Well Of 5100 Mile British Airways Flight

For years people have tried to stow away on aircraft, and it rarely works. Usually they’ll climb up into a wheel well but it can get -50 degrees in there during flight, and it’s not even pressurized. Usually people die.

Now, a United Express baggage handler got trapped in the cargo hold of a regional jet and flew to Washington DC while a drunk baggage handler fell asleep inside the cargo hold of an American Airlines plane and flew to Chicago but those environments are (somewhat) safer and these domestic flights weren’t very long. Usually though it’s someone in search of a better life like the Havana airport worker who stowed away to the United States or the Chinese teen who hid himself on an Emirates plane to Dubai.

However one man hopped a British Airways plane out of Africa and made it the 11 hour journey across 5500 miles – and lived to tell the tale.

30 year old Themba Cabeka “held on to the jet’s undercarriage for the entire 11-hour flight from South Africa to London Heathrow in 2015.” He was discovered on the runway after the plane landed at Heathrow, and he was unconscious and hospitalized for six months. But he was granted asylum in the U.K. and wasn’t forced to return to South Africa.

Cabeka and a friend made the trip together. They both crawled into the wheel well of the British Airways flight. It was the first time on a plane for either of them, as they sought to escape poverty. They tied themselves to the plane with electric cable, and as the plane gained altitude passed out from lack of oxygen.

The friend didn’t make it, falling from the plane on descent at around 5000 feet, six miles out from Heathrow airport.

When the plane was flying, I could see the ground, I could see the cars, I could see small people.

After a little time, I passed out through lack of oxygen. The last thing I remember just after the plane took off was Carlito saying to me: ‘Yeah, we’ve made it.’ We had to force ourselves to be squeezed inside. I could hear the engine running. My heart had pounded before, but that day it was not in my mind at all because I had just taken the decision to do it.

Themba survived because the freezing temperatures slowed down his body and reduced his need for oxygen. He’s grateful he made it, now living in Liverpool, England, but misses his friend and has guilt for missing the man’s funeral while he was unconscious offering “I used to call him “my brother from another mother”. He’s the only guy who knew me, more than anybody, where I come from. I feel we’ve both come on a long journey together so he’s still my friend – no matter that he’s gone.”

If there are two lessons I’d draw, it’s first – do not try this at home, the odds of success are low – but second, desperate people looking to improve their lives will go to tremendous lengths. And as a general matter these are the people I want to have around. It gives me an optimism that undergirds my support for greater freedom of immigration.

(HT: The Travel Insider)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I’m surprised his asylum request was granted. South Africa may have poverty but they are a democratic regime without political prisoners. After a further internet search I learned he was originally from Mozambique, which perhaps that may have helped tip the scales in his favor.

  2. @Gary – Aren’t pets kept in the cargo hold? If so, the temperature shouldn’t be below freezing.

  3. Christian, he was under the cargo hold where the wheels fold up. That is both unheated and unpressurized. Even surviving the machinery operating is something of a miracle as the space left is tiny. I can see the outcry against sending him back and salute his courage, but unfortunately his story might encourage others to try, with predictably fatal results.

  4. As a somewhat libertarian, I am in favor of doing away with passports and allow 100% travel by anyone to anywhere, after all we are one big happy family living in one big happy world. Do away with all the artificial boundaries that divide, separate and categorize us into different groups. Then anyone who wants to travel can apply to any number of humanitarian groups for assistance for their travel and also for their proper care after arrival.

  5. @Gary: “And Keynes wrote “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” in 1919 without knowing what a passport was.

  6. A large amount of the world is 3rd world. Flavalas, slums everywhere. We are so fortunate to live in a first world country and it seems all we’re fighting about politically is 1/2 of us was the basics of life for all and the other half wants as much as they can get for themselves. Remember ” it is hard for a camel to go through the eye of the needle”

  7. @GJ Gerard: Without borders, how do you go about who’s going to pay the taxes for the entire world? And is sex with minorities legal now because in some places it is not illegal? It’s all very easy to say.

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