ZIMBABWE – Last Monday, Zimbabweans woke up to the news that the body of a man had been discovered in a compartment adjacent to the wheel well of a cargo plane that had sought emergency landing for refuelling at the Harare International Airport.
The flight crew did not know who the man was, neither did they have an explanation of how they flew over 8 000km, almost nine hours with him.
The US-based Western Global Airlines was headed for Durban, South Africa, when it made the emergency landing last Sunday.
But now, sources close to the probe on Thursday revealed that the dead man could be a vagrant who sneaked into the aeroplane when it landed at Entebbe International Airport in Uganda.
Entebbe International Airport is the principal international airport of Uganda near the town of Entebbe, on the shores of Lake Victoria and about 41km southwest of the central business district of the capital, Kampala.
Sources yesterday said they were still making frantic efforts to trace the nationality of the unidentified person and the countries and airports where the plane had landed before being held in Zimbabwe.
Chief police spokesperson Senior Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba said investigations were still in progress.
“Investigations are still in progress with our officers still on the ground and there is nothing new yet,” she said.
In a statement, CEO of Western Global Airlines Jim Neff said the man was a stowaway.
“We are saddened that a person has lost his life by stowing aboard one of our cargo aircraft. As compared to other forms of transportation, stowaways on airplanes are rare, but almost always result in fatality. In most cases airport security prevents this from happening but it should never be attempted for any reason.
“We have been working closely with the Zimbabwean authorities as they fully investigate this situation.
“We appreciate their professionalism and the care they have shown our crew, our cargo and our aircraft. Along with our customer, Network Airline Management, we express our condolences and support the efforts of the Zimbabwean government.
“We also appreciate the dedication of our crew, the patience of the South African government while awaiting its shipment and the engagement of the US Embassy in Zimbabwe.
“We are in continuous contact with our crew; when cleared to do so, they will complete the last leg of this charter.”
The statement said the Western Global Airlines aircraft in question is leased to Network Airline Management, a logistics provider, which was engaged to deliver a diplomatic shipment of South African currency from Munich, Germany, to Durban, South Africa, on behalf of the South African Reserve Bank.
It has since emerged that the palne was carrying 60 billion rands.
“All necessary documentation for the flight and its cargo was in order and in compliance with international law. The aircraft departed Munich airport on February 13, 2016 with a crew of three pilots and a mechanic as well as two passengers travelling as couriers for the diplomatic shipment.
“The aircraft made a refuelling stop at Zimbabwe’s Harare International Airport approximately nine hours later. During the refuelling process, ground crew attending the aircraft noticed unusual streaking on the nose gear and upon further investigation; a deceased male was discovered in a compartment adjacent to the wheel well. At present, the identity or nationality of the deceased is not known.
“It is not clear when or how the deceased accessed the aircraft and Western Global is working with authorities to back trace the aircraft’s route of travel.
“There has been no indication that his presence is related to the company or this specific cargo shipment. The company has confirmed that its normal service, safety and security inspections – which meet or exceed all security, maintenance and operational standards – were performed by its maintenance personnel prior to the flight and that cockpit crews conducted exterior walk-arounds prior to departure. The area where the body was found is an area not visible to these inspections and there is no indication the stowaway’s presence affected the operation of the aircraft.”
Although the details were still sketchy, sources in Harare said they believed that the person could have been a vagrant, given the state of the clothes he was wearing.
“He was wearing a pair of trousers that was tied with a rope (used as a belt) and some slippers. So we strongly believe that he could have sneaked into the plane. He is a black man and due to the state of the body we could not estimate his age,” said a source.
“The body, which is in an advanced stage of decomposition, is still at Parirenyatwa Hospital mortuary. If we don’t ascertain his country of origin, he is likely to get a pauper’s burial.”
It is understood that the investigations are covering a number of areas as the matter is shrouded in mystery.
The investigations are aimed at establishing how the person died and why the plane ended up landing in Harare with a corpse on board.
Police have also engaged the services of Interpol to establish the nationality of the deceased person using the fingerprints.
Further, the investigations seek to establish whether the body is not carrying viruses that may cause the spread of diseases here.
It is understood that the body was in an advanced state of decomposition.
Again, it is believed that what had been initially suspected to be blood dripping on the plane could actually be a combination of human fluids associated with a decomposing body.
If this is a case of a stowaway, it is certainly not the first.
A stowaway is a person who secretly boards a vehicle, such as an aircraft, bus, ship, cargo truck or train, to travel without paying and without being detected.
Some years back, West London residents of Mortlake were horrified to discover the body of a dark-skinned man in the middle of the street with massive head injuries. It was concluded that he was a stowaway on a plane that had been flying overhead. A SIM card found on the man’s body allowed investigators to contact a woman who said the deceased was her gardener when she lived in South Africa. He was identified as Jose Matada from Mozambique.
Stowing away in a plane wheel well is very dangerous.
According to the BBC, stowaways in aircraft wheel wells face numerous health risks, many of which are fatal: being mangled when the undercarriage retracts, tinnitus, deafness, hypothermia, hypoxia, frostbite, acidosis and finally falling when the doors of the compartment reopen.
The landing gear compartment is not equipped with heating, pressure or oxygen, which are vital for survival at a high altitude.
According to experts, at 18 000 feet, hypoxia causes lightheadedness, weakness, vision impairment and tremors. By 22 000 feet the oxygen level of the blood drops and the person will struggle to stay conscious.
Above 33 000 feet their lungs would need artificial pressure to operate normally.
The temperature could drop as low as -63°C which causes severe hypothermia.
Those stowaways who managed to not be crushed by the retracting undercarriage or killed by the deadly conditions would most likely be unconscious when the compartment door reopens during the approach and fall several thousand feet to their deaths.
David Learmount, an aviation expert of Flight International, told BBC about a lot of ignorance in this area. He suggested that no one would be willing to risk such journey, having full understanding of this kind of ordeal.
Stowaways who survived usually traveled relatively short distances or at a low altitude.
Two cases are known of people who survived at an altitude of about 38 000 feet – a man on an eight-hour flight, whose body core temperature fell to 79 degrees Fahrenheit, and a 16-year-old boy who was unharmed by a five-and-a-half- hour flight, despite losing consciousness. Almost all aircraft stowaways are male.
In one reported case, in 2003, a young man mailed himself in a large box and had it shipped on UPS planes from New York City to Texas. He survived because the box travelled in a pressurised hold of an aircraft.
From 1947 until September 2012, there were 96 known stowaway attempts worldwide in wheel wells of 85 separate flights, which resulted in 73 deaths with only 23 survivors.