Why Incredible Story of Stowaway Teen Is Raising Eyebrows

Can someone survive at 35,000 feet in a plane's wheel well?

ByABC News
April 21, 2014, 9:49 AM

APRIL 21, 2014— -- Experts are questioning the veracity of a 15-year-old boy's story after he said he stowed away in the wheel well of a plane and survived a five-hour flight from California to Hawaii.

"Somebody surviving at 35,000 feet for five hours with no supplemental oxygen supply; I just don't believe it," ABC News aviation consultant John Nance said.

Most people can remain conscious at 32,000 to 35,000 feet for only a few seconds and would most likely be brain dead within five minutes, Nance said. Without some sort of protective suit, it wouldn't be possible to withstand the minus-50 degree temperatures and the strong winds blowing through the wheel well, he added.

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Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News' chief health and medical correspondent, said, "At high altitudes your body succumbs to hypoxia. It doesn't get the oxygen it needs to survive and most people would pass out and die within a few minutes."

"The other thing that would happen is hypothermia. At that height you're going to freeze to death," Besser added.

But Federal Aviation Administration officials told "Good Morning America" there is a way the boy could have survived the trip. The lack of oxygen and extreme cold might preserve the nervous system and slow the body down into a state of suspended animation similar to the way some animals hibernate in the winter, they speculated.

Besser said this is theoretically possible.

"We see this with hibernating animals when their breathing and heart beat slows down to a couple of times per minute and it's possible if your body slows down enough it doesn't need as much oxygen and you survive," he said.

The FAA say there are two cases in the past where stowaways have endured similar, high-altitude flights. The chances of survival of a wheel well stowaway on a commercial aircraft are about 24 percent, according to the Federal Aviation Administration's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute,

The 15-year-old boy from Santa Clara, Calif., reportedly ran away from home Sunday morning and went to the San Jose airport where he hopped the fence and sneaked into the wheel well of Hawaiian airlines Flight 45. The boy reportedly said he remained in the unprotected, unpressurized wheel well for the entire five hour flight.

When the flight landed at Maui airport around 10:30 a.m. local time Sunday, the boy reportedly said he was passed out and did not come to until about an hour later. At around 11:30 a.m., he was spotted by ground crews at the Maui airport walking around the tarmac.

Authorities took the boy into custody and had him checked out by doctor who declared he had no injuries.

"It's almost miraculous," Besser said. "Maybe there's more to the story."

This story has been updated to reflect a change in the age of the stowaway teen, who authorities previously said was 16 years old.