The Tragic Story Of Keith Sapsford, The 14-Year-Old Stowaway Who Fell From A Plane
Published in Jul 2021 / Updated in Sep 2021
Back in 1970, a 14-year-old Australian boy Keith Sapsford fell to his death in an ill-fated attempt to fly to Tokyo while inside a plane’s wheel well. He was born in 1956 in Sydney, New South Wales.
While most teenagers can’t stand being in Catholic schools, Keith was particularly unhappy with his situation. He had only been at the school for a few weeks when he decided enough was enough.
He snuck out of school, sneaked into a Sydney Airport, got into an airplane’s wheel well, and waited for a free ride to Japan.
Strangely, his father was behind this daring attempt to run away.
A few months before the deadly misadventure, his dad had warned him about a boy dying while hiding in a plane’s undercarriage, not knowing his son was about to experience that fate.
Keith decided that staying in a wheel well would keep him safe. What he didn’t know was that the compartment would open again as the wheels were retracting during takeoff. He ended up plummeting 200 feet (61 m) to his death soon after taking off.
The horrifying sight was caught on camera by an amateur photographer.
Keith Always Had An “Urge To Keep On The Move”
According to his father, Charles, Keith had always been a curious child. Charles Sapsford was a lecturer teaching mechanical and industrial engineering.
In fact, pushed by the boy’s insatiable interest in adventure, the family had gone on a trip overseas to help him quench his uncontrollable thirst. Yet, he still wanted out of Australia.
Things were getting out of hand, and the family had to resort to something drastic to keep the boy’s desires in check. For that reason, they sent him to Boys’ Town, which knew a thing or two about dealing with troubled kids.
The parents assumed that the institution would keep the boy in line.
Unfortunately, Keith’s desire for adventure was greater than anyone could have imagined. He still ran away a few weeks after being admitted and headed straight to Sydney Airport. The journey there took a few days.
Nobody can tell for sure if he knew the plane he was boarding was heading to Japan or not. However, that was the last decision of his life.
The Deadly Fall
Airport security at the time was a joke compared to what we have in place at the moment. The teenager easily sneaked onto the tarmac and went straight for a Douglas DC-8 that was just about to take off.
Passengers were still getting on the plane.
By coincidence, John Gilpin, an amateur photographer, was also in the vicinity taking pictures of the airport, hoping to get at least one good photo. He had no idea that he would capture a moment that would prove to be more important than he ever imagined.
The boy was quite patient. He waited hours in the wheel well before the plane finally took off. His mistake was forgetting that the wheel compartment would open so the wheels could retract out of sight as the plane took off.
John managed to record Keith as he was falling off the plane to his death.
All He Wanted Was To See The World
According to Keith’s father, Charles, all the boy wanted was to see the world:
“He had itchy feet. His determination to see how the rest of the world lives has cost him his life.”
After learning of the misfortune, the aircraft was checked out, and they found handprints, fingerprints, and threads of his clothes in the wheel compartment. There was no doubt that his last moments were spent in there.
Unfortunately, even if Keith had managed to cling on, his fate was still sealed. Lack of oxygen and freezing temperatures as the plane flew to Japan would have been more than he can handle.
He had also made the mistake of making his escape using a short-sleeved shirt and a pair of shorts.
In other words, there was little the boy could have done to save himself from his untimely death at just 14 years of age.
Keith’s family never fully recovered from the loss of their son. Charles mourned his son until his death at 93 years of age.
What made the situation even worse for him was the realization that Keith would still have died even if he didn’t fall. For instance, he could have been crushed by the retracting wheel or suffered a painful death once the plane rose to cruising altitude where there wasn’t enough oxygen.
Gilpin did not know he had captured a boy falling to his death until a week later. As he was developing his photos, he saw what he thought to be the silhouette of a boy falling from a plane.
From the picture, it was clear that the boy had raised his hands in a vain attempt to hold on to something and keep himself from falling to death.
The photo became incredibly famous, and it remains a reminder that being a stowaway is deadly business. The young life was ended abruptly due to a fatal and avoidable mistake.
The Heartbreaking Realization
It’s hard to understand why people would take such a huge risk on their lives by choosing to be stowaways. According to experts, the odds of surviving such a huge undertaking pretty much guarantees death.
Surprisingly, according to the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), one in four airplane stowaways survive. However, that only happens when the flights are short, and the planes don’t rise to cruise altitudes. Surviving a ride on a plane that reaches cruising altitude is pretty much out of the question since temperatures can plummet to less than -50 degrees Celsius.
However, when two men tried to stow from South Africa to London, one survived but needed hospitalization. Someone else survived a trip from Tahiti to Los Angeles, but he paid the price by suffering from severe hypothermia.
According to statistics, there have been 96 stowaway attempts on record from 1947 to 2012. Of these, 73 lost their lives, and only 23 made it, some of whom suffered terribly for their mistake.
It is believed that there are many more cases of stowaways as some bodies are likely to have fallen off the planes into the ocean or gotten away without anyone noticing once the planes landed. The stowaways are predominantly males under the age of 30.
Wheel Well Stowaways Expose Themselves To Considerable Risks
Some wheel well stowaways cannot keep them inside the wheel compartments and end up falling to their deaths. This is what happened to Keith Sapsford.
The wheels have also been known to crush the stowaways as the landing gear retracts after takeoff. Those who avoid the physical arm of deadly falls usually face hypothermia or hypoxia due to extremely cold temperatures and low pressure, respectively. These risks start setting in at 8,000 feet, and at 20,000 feet, risks such as gas embolism set in.
Experts are still baffled how some of these people survived extreme temperatures and incredibly low oxygen requirements. Some argue that the body may go into a state similar to hibernation, which reduces the body’s need for oxygen.
For instance, “Mr. Popsicle,” a Cuban stowaway who was covered in ice by the time he landed, suffered such severe frostbite that the middle finger was black by the time he landed. However, he still survived. He had also lost his hearing but got it back after a month in hospital.
Keith Sapsford faced unimaginable odds even if he had managed to remain in the wheel compartment for the entire journey. For wheel-well stowaways, the odds favor death, not survival.