What Is A Wheel Well, And How On Earth Do You Survive A Flight Sitting In One?

Sunday's news that a California teen stowed away in the wheel well of a Boeing 767 for a six-hour flight from San Jose to Hawaii, and lived to tell the tale, came as a shock. How on earth did the 16-year-old, who reportedly says he hid on the plane to try to reach his mother in Somalia, manage to make it safely all the way to landing? As it turns out, according to experts, the answer isn't clear, beyond one simple fact — he almost surely should have died as the result of the scheme. So, well, don't get any ideas.

The teen, his name unknown, got the idea and ran with it, FBI Special Agent Tom Simon told The San Jose Mercury News. "He ran for the nearest plane. This was not a well-planned thing. Just a runaway kid with a bad idea."

So, question number one: what exactly is a wheel well, and how does it work? If you've flown before, you've surely seen or felt it before — the landing gear on commercial aircrafts retract up into the body of the plane, and are safely tucked away there until being lowered again moments before it lands at its destination. The wheel well, also known as the wheel bay or landing gear bay, is the space up inside the plane that houses the gear mid-flight.

The amount of space inside the wheel well, to actually occupy as the flight reaches a dizzying cruising altitude of 30,000 feet — literally, as the thinness of the air would commonly result in loss of consciousness — is cramped and unforgiving. As demonstrated both in a helpful video by the AP, there's only about a foot of clearance between the inner wall of the wheel well, and the bulk of the landing gear itself. Which makes sense, because you're not supposed to ride in there.

Beyond simply the lack of oxygen, the risk of passing out and the intense, freezing cold, the final, most dangerous element of the trip is the descent, when the landing gear drops back down again.

As the above video details, the gear doesn't give off an alert, or slowly drop down as the well doors open — it drops suddenly, giving no warning when the moment's coming, while the plane may still be tearing along at speeds over 300 miles per hour. Even achieving the physical feat, of surviving the hours on end cruising high over the Pacific, he still could have been tossed out to the winds when the doors opened up.

Aerospace physicist Jeff Sventek, of the Aerospace Medical Association, told National Geographic he's run over the teen's harrowing trip in his mind a number of times, and still can't quite figure how he made it out alive.

I can't explain it. I can only speculate. Very close to the floor of the plane or the ceiling of wheel well, there is probably a large compartment of electrical equipment. Perhaps heat generated from that equipment could have radiated through the floor, and he might have gotten his hands and feet close to it. ... For someone who spent his life teaching this and understanding it, it's still very hard for me to understand and grasp how he dropped down and was walking around the tarmac after this experience. He's just a very, very lucky young man.