Hiding in a Wheel Well
- By Ralph C. Jensen
- Jun 01, 2014
It is a well-known fact that video surveillance
cameras can help detect trespassers; however, if
no one is looking at the surveillance or if the human
element has not been notified of a breach, trespassing
can leap to new heights.
Case in point is a 16-year-old runaway from San
Jose, Calif. who argues with his father, runs to the
nearby airport and stows away in the front landing
gear of a Boeing 767 headed for Maui, Hawaii. It’s
not like this happens every day, so when a teenager
(who at this writing remains unidentified) is so determined
to leave the United States and get to Somalia to
visit his mother, this generates news.
How could he not have been caught? Was security
asleep at the wheel? Were the video surveillance cameras
not properly maintained? Or, worse yet, was no
one looking at the images? Also part of the mystery
is how the boy survived the five-hour flight.
Surveillance cameras at San Jose International
Airport did capture images of the teenager on the tarmac
and climbing into the nose gear of the airplane.
So, for those who question if this really happened,
it would seem that the boy did enter the plane. But,
what about the cameras on the perimeter of the tarmac?
Shouldn’t his entry at the perimeter have been
caught and properly dealt with?
According to John Nance, an ABC News aviation
consultant, the weak link is at the perimeter, or the
fence, in this case.
“Security was not as effective as expected,” he said.
The use of cameras in this situation was a failure
because no one noticed the security breach until the
plane, and the stowaway, landed in Hawaii.
We all know there is technology available that can
be programmed to sound an alert when a line of security
has been breached or when there is something
that seems potentially suspicious. Implementation of
analytics software would probably have successfully
alerted officials of the breach, stopping the youth
from slipping past layers of security.
Just because something is caught on camera,
though, it doesn’t mean it will make an impression;
yet, once the boy climbed down from the wheel well in
Maui, a definite impression was made.
With proper security in place and with the human
element being alerted, there still is no guarantee that
the youth would have been detected, even though the
chances do increase dramatically.
“Sometimes the actual results are quite underwhelming
when it gets to the real world, where people
are fatigued; people are preoccupied,” said Richard
Bloom, an airport security expert at Embry Riddle
Aeronautical University in Arizona. “There is no way
to guarantee security, even if you had one person per
While security officials at San Jose International
Airport are reviewing how the boy slipped onto secure
airport property, there has been no indication
that those same officials will step up security or police
presence at the site, though improvements are expected
once a review has been completed. The question
remains how the boy was able to scale a fence with
barbed wire without injury, and not be detected by
German shepherd dogs and Segway-riding police officers.
Problem is, not all sections of fencing around the
airport have barbed wire, and the youth approached
the plane during the early morning hour of 1 a.m.
The fact remains that security still has its weaknesses,
despite the billions of dollars spent.
Skeptics believe the boy really didn’t make the
flight, but there is video surveillance showing the
youth climbing out of the wheel well once the flight
landed in Kahului International Airport in Maui. He
also was found wandering the tarmac at the airport. I
suppose if there is a will, there is a way to make something
happen. While the boy didn’t have malicious
intent, there are the “what ifs” of someone else with
On the flip side of this security question, the Federal
Aviation Administration said that about onefourth
of the 105 stowaways worldwide have survived.
It is a remarkable tale that this fella was able to live
through the ordeal. Many people have died trying
this free ride, if not for the unbearable conditions of
altitude, fighting cold, deadly temperatures and lack
of oxygen, then for the fact that when the wheel well
opens on its glide path to the runway, a body typically
The fact that this boy is still alive is curious.
California runs the airports in the state, and there
are some serious questions being asked and others
that need answers. I hope this serves as a wake-up call
for all airports nationwide and that security directors
will review their multiple layers of security.
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Security Today.
Ralph C. Jensen is editor-in-chief of Security Today magazine.