Risking Everything for a Better Life

A passenger aircraft comes into land at London Heathrow Airport in London, U.K. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

There’s a small section of South West London in which bodies — usually black or brown bodies — fall from the sky. For Maclean’s, Shannon Gormley reports on the dangers migrants face as they attempt to find safety and greater economic opportunity in a new country. While some attempt travel secreted away in transport trucks, others choose the wheel well of a jetliner traveling to London Heathrow Airport in a treacherous, and almost always fatal bid to improve their fortunes.

There’s a pretty little part of South West London where dead people fall from the sky. It’s a perfectly charming area.

The first one plummeted into a supermarket parking lot that was then under construction. That was in 1996. Two years later, a couple on a date swore they saw a second body hit the same spot, though this has never been confirmed. Another few years, another dead person in another parking lot, this one across from the supermarket which had by then been completed. The area received a decade-long reprieve from the bodies after that, but nothing lasts forever. In 2012 residents found one on a leafy side street; then, in 2015, on an air-conditioning unit on top of an office building. And this past summer, the latest: It plunged headlong into a walled back garden, neatly cracking the pavement open and landing next to a sunbather who responded with an appropriate mixture of shock and horror. That is supposed to have been the nearest near-miss.

First, the stowaway takes to the runway, with the lights along the tarmac. Sometimes he makes a game plan with a smuggler, a plan for freedom and for whatever else. And sometimes he just makes a mad break for it, running as if his life depends on it because he is certain that it does.

However he reaches the plane, if he reaches the plane, he often heads for a wheel. He hoists himself into the wheel-well, a space just big enough to curl his frame into. There, he braces himself. Or he panics.

He braces himself if he knows what’s coming. The spinning of the wheel, the thunder of the engines, the climb above the Earth, the freezing air, the oxygen-starved air. He panics if he realizes he’s been misinformed by a deceptive smuggler or a hopeful idiot, told that above the wheel lies a secret trap door that leads to a secret tunnel in the underbelly of a plane that magically carries its passengers to a better life.

And then he’s killed, probably. Around three in four wheel-well stowaways are, in one of three ways. When the wheels retract, some stowaways are crushed by the landing gear. When the plane hits high altitudes, others are asphyxiated or freeze to death. And when the wheels go back down, those still holding on to life have probably lost their hold on consciousness before they slip out of the well and drop to Earth. That is rare, though. By the time the landing gear opens—often, over a pretty little part of South West London that happens to sit under a flight path to Heathrow—the typical plane stowaway is already dead.

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