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Dangers stowaways pose to selves, aviation security

by Louis Ibah

The Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) Lagos, was thrown into a state of confusion on July 1, 2017, following allegations of the successful (unharmed) stowaway return trip of 22-year old Emmanuel Ugochukwu from Lagos to London on a Boeing B747 aircraft operated by Medview Airlines.

Ugochukwu’s feat, was initially denied by Nigeria security and regulatory officials, who without doubt were more stunned by the possibility of his survival on the almost 12hour journey to and from Lagos to London, than on how the young man was able to beat all security institutions at the airport to board the flight, albeit illegally. But it later turned out that contrary to earlier reports that Ugochukwu hid himself in the nose wheel of the aircraft as most stowaways do, he had actually sneaked into the spares compartment of the aircraft, where engineers keep their equipment, spares and tools.

Only the Boeing B747 aircraft which Medview Airlines deploys on the Lagos – London route has that special compartment and this explains why he survived the journey; that compartment is as pressurised  as the aircraft cabin and it is close to the cockpit.

The major worry however as expressed by most air travelers in Nigeria  is that had Ugochukwu been a terrorists sent from Boko Haram, or an unhappy or demented Nigerian laced with dynamites or a bomb,  then judging by the ease in which he gained entrance into the airport and onto the aircraft, nothing possibly could have prevented him from blowing off the Medview Boeing B747 aircraft and killing all passenger and crew. The Ugochukwu event sadly, occurred at a time Nigeria was preparing the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos for a safety audit and certification by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). No Nigerian airport is ICAO certified and the Medview Airline incident raises a fundamental question on the safety of Nigerian airports. As noted by many stakeholders, if it could happen at the MMIA adjudged to be the most secured of all Nigerian airports given recent infrastructure upgrade including CCTV cameras, then one can only imagine how porous the state of security at the other 22 Nigerian airports are.

Why stowaway

A stowaway is a person who secretly boards an aircraft in order to travel without paying for such services and without being detected. Most stowaways opt to do so by hiding inside the wheel well (landing gear compartment) also known as wheel bay of an aircraft. Very few stowaways do survive and the reason is simply because the landing gear compartment is not equipped with heating, pressure or oxygen, which are vital for survival at a high altitude. Indeed, between 2010-2017, there have been nine stowaway cases involving Nigerians, with seven of those cases resulting in the death of the culprits because they stowed away on the wheel well of the aircraft on long haul journeys. The seven tragic journeys were attempts made between Nigeria to the USA, UK, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa. The first recorded stowaway incident by a Nigerian took place in March 2010  aboard a Delta Air Lines flight Boeing 777 from Lagos – Atlanta and it was by Okechukwu Okeke. He was discovered dead in the nose wheel well of the aircraft when it touched down at the Atlanta Airport.The two survivors were the August 2013 incident involving 13year Daniel Ihekina on Arik Air Benin City -Lagos flight  and on the latest incident involving Emmanuel Ugochukwu. Analysts say the fact that Nigerian stowaways don’t have valid passports, visas, and flight tickets is enough proof that these are desperate persons who would spare no risk in their quest for improved financial fortunes overseas.

The inherent risks

David Learmount, an aviation expert of Flight International, told BBC that most stowaways are ignorant about the risks associated with their actions. Indeed there is need for an increase in public enlightenment and education on the inherent danger or harm stowaways could face because  no one would be willing to risk such journey, having full understanding of the ordeal involved. Stowaways in aircraft wheel wells face numerous health risks, many of which are fatal, among them, being mangled when the undercarriage retracts, tinnitus, deafness, hypothermia, hypoxia, frostbite, and finally falling when the doors of the compartment reopen. According to experts, at 18,000 feet (5,500 m), hypoxia causes lightheadedness, weakness, vision impairment and tremors. By 22,000 feet (6,700 m) the oxygen level of the blood drops and the person will struggle to stay conscious. Above 33,000 feet (10,000 m) their lungs would need artificial pressure to operate normally.The temperature could drop as low as −63 °C (−81 °F) which causes severe hypothermia. Those stowaways who managed to not be crushed by the retracting undercarriage or killed by the deadly conditions highlighted above would most likely be unconscious when the compartment door re-opens during the approach and fall several thousand feet to their deaths. Stowaways who survived usually traveled relatively short distances or at a low altitude. But above all, stowaways need to know that they may risk being fined or imprisoned, since it is illegal in most jurisdictions to embark on an aircraft as stowaways.

What should be done 

Security operative who was privy to the latest incident on the Medview Airlines Lagos – London flight said Ugochukwu breached four levels of security to access the aircraft. “The first is the perimeter fencing, the second is the close circuit television (CCTV), the third is the aviation security (AVSEC) who are supposed to man the tarmac 24 hours and the fourth is the security in charge of the aircraft. He breached these four levels of security,” said a top security officer at the Lagos airport.

And herein lies the snag, the security loopholes which the Federal Ministry of Aviation and the country’s airport security institutions must speedily fix across all airports in the country if it must end the spate of stowaways and also save the lives of its often ignorant citizens.

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