National Security

Air Force chief: Stowaway on military plane raises security concerns

Two U.S. Army C-130 Hercules planes prepare to drop paratroopers Dec. 17, 2013, during an airborne operation in Kaiserlautern, Germany.
Two U.S. Army C-130 Hercules planes prepare to drop paratroopers Dec. 17, 2013, during an airborne operation in Kaiserlautern, Germany. U.S. Army

U.S. military officials and German authorities are investigating a possible security breach after the body of a young man was found inside the right rear wheel well of a C-130 transport plane at Ramstein Air Base.

Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force chief of staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that the incident "raised security flags for everybody involved."

Welsh said the young man, described as a black adolescent of possible African origin, apparently got on the plane in Mali while the military plane was operating in several African countries and later died of asphyxiation.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said that "whatever happened here, something fell through the cracks that this boy was able to gain access to the aircraft."

Welsh said that U.S. Africa Command and U.S. European Command will do a joint investigation because the aircraft, which is assigned to the 86th Airlift Wing, is based in Germany but was executing missions in Africa.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that the military transport plane had been “supporting Africa Command operations with stops in a few countries” before returning to the U.S. base in Germany.

No identification was found on the young man when he was discovered Sunday night, Kirby said, and tests on the body came back negative for any communicable diseases. A recent outbreak of the Ebola virus has plagued several countries in West Africa.

Kirby said many military airfields in more remote areas don’t provide the same level of security as U.S. or other Western air bases.

“Security is going to be looked at here, obviously it will be,” Kirby told reporters in a separate briefing. “But we shouldn’t expect that the security environment in every location that these aircraft operate is going to be at the same standard (as U.S. bases).”

He added: "If there's corrective action that needs to be taken, we'll take it."

The body was not discovered during routine pre-flight or post-flight inspections in Africa, Kirby said, but it was found during a more detailed inspection of the entire aircraft at Ramstein Air Base.

"In fact, (ground crew) had to remove an outside fuselage panel to remove his body," Welsh said Wednesday.

The body did not interfere with the plane’s flight, Kirby said.

Stowing away in the wheel well of an aircraft is not an unprecedented feat, but it often ends with deadly results.

In April, a 16-year-old boy was found alive after stowing away in the wheel well of a Hawaiian Airlines flight from San Jose, Calif., to the Hawaiian island of Maui.