Body Found in Nose Gear of United Airlines Plane From China

SAN FRANCISCO_A body was found in the nose gear of a United Airlines jet that had just arrived in San Francisco from China on Thursday, and officials said the person might have been a stowaway.

Mechanics inspecting United Airlines flight 858 discovered the body inside the nose gear well of the Boeing 747 shortly after the plane landed from Shanghai at 7:42 a.m., San Francisco International Airport spokesman Mike McCarron.

The man, who was wearing several layers of clothes and appeared to be Asian and in his 50s, had few obvious injuries, according to San Mateo County Coroner Robert Foucrault. He could have died from a lack of oxygen at altitude, from hypothermia or after being crushed by the landing gear, Foucrault said.

The man had apparently crawled inside the nose gear's wheel well intentionally, suggesting an attempted stowaway, McCarron said.

"It's not an easily accessible place," he said, explaining that few people survive such journeys because the conditions are extremely harsh.

Stowing away in such a manner "has been attempted, but it's never been successful," he said.

"At altitude, there's no air to breathe and it's maybe minus-40 degrees for 12 hours. You can't survive."

An autopsy was scheduled for Friday to determine the cause of death, Foucrault said.

Federal aviation officials said people occasionally try to enter countries without authorization by hiding in a plane's underbelly.

Counting Thursday's victim, the Federal Aviation Administration has tallied 75 similar stowaway attempts on 65 flights worldwide since 1947. The vast majority - 59 - ended in death, according to FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.

"People think they can make it into a country by hiding in a wheel well," Gregor said. "Almost invariably they get crushed to death, freeze to death, or fall to death."

But there is little U.S. regulators can do to prevent the practice on international flights, he said.

"The security issue is with the origin airport," he said.

The last time someone was found alive after a stowaway flight to the United States was in 2004, when a survivor made it to Miami on a plane from the Dominican Republic, Gregor said.

Sometimes stowaways are allowed to stay after flying illegally into a country.

Victor Alvarez Molina got refugee status in Canada after enduring a four-hour flight from Cuba. He told reporters he clung to a picture of his daughter and hot air pipes in the wheel well to survive a temperature that aviation experts calculated would have been minus 40 Fahrenheit or colder.


Associated Press Writer Scott Lindlaw in San Francisco contributed to this report.