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Eight freezing hours in the sky

Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

On 30 June, 2019, an anonymous Kenyan plummeted 3,500ft from a plane into a garden in Clapham, south London. His body crashed to earth next to a shocked sunbather. “Stowing away in the wheel well of a passenger jet is, objectively speaking, a suicidally dangerous thing to do,” says Sirin Kale in The Guardian’s The Long Read podcast. No one knew why the stowaway did it – although a third of the Kenyan population “lives on less than $2 a day” – or even who he was. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, 128 people tried the same thing between 1947 and 2020. More than 75% of them died.

In 1969, however, 17-year-old Armando Socarras Ramirez successfully pulled it off: eight freezing hours in the sky, across the Atlantic from Havana to Madrid. “The doctors in Spain called me the Popsicle,” Ramirez, now 69, tells Kale. Inside the wheel well, it was black and deafening. “You became part of the noise.” He blacked out and was thought dead on arrival.

But he woke up. Scientists theorise that successful stowaways “hibernate” as the body’s core temperature falls to 27C. He was deafened for a month, but suffered no lasting physical problems. He served as a US firefighter for 11 years, became a father of four and lives in Virginia. But he regrets his legacy of Cuban copycats: “Most of them died.”

Listen to the full episode here.