An Air Force C-130J Super Hercules sits on the flight line at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The body of an unidentified boy was discovered July 27 in the wheel well of C-130 assigend to the 86th Airlift Wing. (Airman Kendra Alba / Air Force)
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The body of an unidentified male between 15 and 20 years old was found in the wheel well of an 86th Airlift Wing C-130 on Sunday after the plane returned to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, from missions in Africa, officials said.
German pathologists have not yet determined the boy's exact age due to various factors, including malnutrition, Air Force Capt. Sybil Taunton, a spokeswoman for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, told Military Times.
A maintenance team found the body of the "apparent stowaway" trapped in a compartment above the C-130's read landing gear after the plane had landed, a Pentagon spokesman said at a news conference on Tuesday.
“American and German emergency responders were summoned; removed the body, transported it to a German facility for autopsy and further investigation," Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters. "The deceased was an adolescent black male, possibly of African origin.”
“At this point, it is unknown where or when the deceased entered the landing gear wheel well,” Kirby said. “The location of the body did not impact the function or flight of the aircraft, nor would it be visible during standard pre- and post-flight inspections. The body was only discovered during a detailed post-flight inspection by maintenance personnel.”
The inspection of the area where the body was found “required the removal of an exterior fuselage panel, something that is not normally done during normal mission pre- and post-flight inspections,” said Senior Airman Timothy Moore, a spokesman for the 86th Airlift Wing.
U.S. European Command is investigating how the incident happened, including the security situation surrounding the C-130 while it was on the ground in Africa. Kirby did not say if there was a security team with the aircraft or guarding it while it was on the ground. The Defense Department hasn’t announced the C-130 tail number, variant, home base.
“It is not known how the stowaway got on the aircraft,” Moore said. “The area where the body was found was not one that we believed a person could access or fit into, so we will review this in the course of our investigation.”
Also, Moore, said “while we have security procedures in place it should be noted that when operating on foreign airfields, our personnel are subject to the rules and procedures set by local officials. Please note that facilities and personnel movement controls at many African airports are not comparable to those we know at European or American airports. In that region, it’s not uncommon for members of the public — sometimes in large numbers — to congregate in the vicinity of flightlines, runways and other airport facilities.”
It isn’t clear how long the aircraft was on the ground in Germany before the body was found, just that it was a short time between landing and the detailed inspection.
This is the first time this has happened with a Ramstein-assigned aircraft, Moore said.
The Pentagon announced the discovery Tuesday, even though the body was discovered on Sunday, because “a process needed to be undertaken to safely remove the body,” Kirby said.