The boy who fell to earth

A teenage stowaway is ejected from a plane and dies. Must this story, too, be run through the prism of terrorism?

Published December 14, 2010 1:20AM (EST)

A Life magazine photo from the 1970s of a 14-year-old boy dropping from the gear bay of a Japan Air Lines DC-8 seconds after takeoff from Sydney, Australia.
A Life magazine photo from the 1970s of a 14-year-old boy dropping from the gear bay of a Japan Air Lines DC-8 seconds after takeoff from Sydney, Australia.

Here in New England we've been following the strange and sad story of 16-year-old stowaway Delvonte Tisdale. On Nov. 14, at the airport in Charlotte, N.C., Tisdale managed to clamber undetected into the left landing gear bay of a Boston-bound US Airways 737.

Tisdale was later ejected over Milton, Mass., from a height of approximately 2,000 feet as the plane prepared to land on runway 04R at Boston's Logan Airport.

A startling incident to be sure, but as these things go you can always count on a politician or government official to give it some annoying spin:

"It's a terrible tragedy what happened to this young man," said District Attorney William R. Keating. "But if that was someone with a different motive ... if that was a terrorist that could have been a bomb that was planted, undetected. This is very serious."

Can I ask why we are we unable to discuss anything anymore, particularly when that anything involves airplanes, without running it first through the prism of terrorism? This is not an airport security scandal. It's a story about a young kid who managed to foolishly kill himself. 

Delvonte Tisdale sneaked onto the tarmac and got himself into the bowels of a plane. Mr. Keating and others find such a breach unpardonable in this era of Transportation Security Administration clampdown. But like it or not, the uncomfortable fact is that anybody can probably pull off such a stunt if he or she really wants to and tries hard enough.

And remember, not everybody with tarmac access is screened in the first place. Tisdale apparently skirted the TSA concourse checks on his way into the 737's wheel well. Well, so did the people who fueled that plane, catered that plane, swept out the aisles and loaded the bags. Except they did it legally, thanks to a TSA policy that exempts ground workers from normal security checks. Only the passengers, pilots and flight attendants were marched through the metal detectors and X-ray machines.

This is a loophole the media continues to ignore inexplicably. But don't get me started.

The phenomenon of stowaways in wheel wells is hardly new. There have been hundreds of such cases over the years, typically involving flights from developing countries headed to the U.S. or Europe. What makes this case unique is that it involved a U.S. domestic flight. According to the FAA, Tisdale was the first domestic wheel-well stowaway in almost 40 years.

If you've ever snooped around the nether regions of a jetliner, especially a wide-bodied one, you've seen just how spacious the gear bays are, and how deceptively "roomy" they can appear. The bays of a 747 or 777 are the size of a two-car garage -- with plenty of nooks to hide in among a labyrinth of tubes and cables and struts and piping. However, the bays are neither pressurized nor heated. There is little oxygen, and temperatures at cruising altitudes hover somewhere around 50 degrees below zero. To that you can add total darkness, deafening noise and the very good chance of being crushed to death by the retraction mechanisms of the undercarriage. It's worse, even, than coach. Very few riders have survived down there.

Nobody knows for sure if Tisdale was dead before the doors swung open over Milton. Either way he was not the first youngster to come tumbling from an airliner. There is a famous picture from Life magazine, taken in the 1970s by an amateur photographer named John Gilpin. It shows a 14-year-old Australian boy, Keith Sapsford, dropping from the gear bay of a Japan Air Lines DC-8 only seconds after takeoff from Sydney. Sapsford, who had either slipped, jumped from fright, or was dislodged by a piece of moving equipment, had hoped to reach Japan. Gilpin was snapping shots of airplanes and had no idea he'd captured the image until after developing his film.

The library at St. John's Prep, in Danvers, Mass., where I went to high school, had a hard-bound Life collection in which this photo was featured. Countless times I would open to that page and stare at it. It's such a transfixing, terrifying image.

History has also shown us safer and more creative ways of sneaking onto a plane. Most famously there was Frank Abagnale, the notorious impostor of "Catch Me if You Can" fame who conned his way into cockpits with a forged pilot's license. Or the lesser-known William Cohn, a shop owner from Florida who in the early 1980s traveled the world by posing as a Pan Am flight attendant. (I originally wrote about Abagnale and Cohn in this 2007 column.) Cohn's ruse wasn't uncovered until passengers and fellow employees had written several letters of commendation on his behalf.

Instead of arresting him, they should have given him the job.

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The other big airplane story floating around is that of the FAA having admittedly lost track of the ownership records of tens of thousands of U.S.-registered private planes.

Obviously this is an embarrassment for the FAA, but again, same question: Do we really need to see this is as a national security scandal?

A terrorist could, I suppose, get hold of a four-seater, pack it with explosives, and fly it into a building. And he could do the same thing, more or less, with a truck or a car or a boat. Besides, keeping better track of ownership and registration paperwork won't, by itself, keep a plane from being stolen and used for something nefarious. 

As some of you might recall from this story, I have no special love for the noise and cramped cockpits of Cessnas and Pipers. But putting the screws to private planes -- and the private pilots who fly them -- would be not only logistically impossible, it'd be downright un-American. This is a country with a long and rich heritage of what might be called "personal aviation." There are bush planes in the wilds of Alaska, seaplanes on remote mountain lakes -- thousands of them. Their existence is, quite frankly, a testament to our liberties, as is the opportunity for their pilots to fly them -- whenever they want, wherever they want -- free of the kind of burdensome security rules that plague our commercial airports. Let's keep it that way.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his website and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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