Wheel-well and cargo compartment temperatures of large aircraft in flight: Implications for stowaways

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Background: Desperate people sometimes risk journeys as stowaways in aircraft wheel-wells. Some of them survive, despite the risks of being crushed by retracting landing gear, falling when the gear deploys for landing, or experiencing severe hypoxia and hypobaria in-flight. This study evaluates the level of hypothermia to which stowaways in aircraft may be exposed. Methods: Miniature dataloggers were used to record in-flight temperatures in aircraft wheel-wells and cargo compartments. Temperatures were measured for front and side wheel-wells (FW and SW, respectively) on 36 flights by C-130 aircraft (mean duration 3.3 h, mean cruise altitude 5588 m (18,333 ft)) and 11 flights by C-141 aircraft (6.7 h and 10,744 m (35,250 ft)). Results: Mean minimum temperatures for the C-130 remained above freezing and averaged 5.1°C for FW and 11.9°C for SW. The higher, longer C-141 flights produced temperatures below freezing with mean minimum temperatures of -18.0°C for FW and -12.4°C for SW. In general, temperatures in wheel-wells remained about 20°C above outside air temperature (OAT) at all altitudes. This increase reflects the fact that wheel-wells are closed spaces within the aircraft body, in addition to which they contain sources of heat such as hydraulic lines and electrical equipment. Cargo compartment minimum temperature was relatively high (mean = 18.6°C for commercial airline). A search of the medical literature and lay press produced information on 46 incidents of people found in wheel-wells after landing where there was no evidence of trauma. The 15 survivors had stowed away on relatively short flights (mean = 4.8 h, maximum = 10 h) compared with fatalities (mean = 7.5 h, range = 3-12 h). Conclusions: Temperatures in wheel-wells during short flights may sustain life. Long flights add severe hypothermia to acute hypoxia and hypobaria as potentially fatal environmental factors faced by wheel-well stowaways.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)673-676
Number of pages4
JournalAviation Space and Environmental Medicine
Issue number7
StatePublished - 2002


  • Cargo compartment
  • Hypothermia
  • Temperature
  • Wheel-well


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