When Boredom Strikes

Keith Sapsford: The Story of 14-Year-Old Stowaway

The final image of 14-year-old Australian Keith Sapsford, who aspired to travel the world. In February 1970, he sneaked into the wheel-well of a plane flying from Sydney to Tokyo. It opened mid-air & fell out. When a photographer was testing a new lens, he captured this moment on film and was surprised when it developed.

The majority of teenagers would hate being sent away from their families and friends, especially if they were to be sent to a Catholic residential school where there were rigid rules that had to be followed.

Australian teenager Keith Sapsford, then 14 years old, experienced a similar situation in 1970. After only a few weeks, he made the decision to flee, demonstrating his determination to escape this predicament, but he made no decision to return home.

Instead, he made the decision to leave Australia entirely. Keith Sapsford left his school and drove himself to the Sydney airport. Keith got to the airport and snuck onto the tarmac where a few planes were waiting.

He managed to escape on one plane that was bound for Tokyo, Japan. He gave in to temptation and entered the open undercarriage of the Japan Air Lines.

What drove him to make this desperate move?

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Keith Sapsford falling from the plane captured by John Gilpin

The History of Keith Sapsford

Events that took place months before Keith stepped out onto that tarmac affected his choices and ultimately caused him to climb onto that plane’s wheel well. Keith’s father, Charles Sapsford, had told his son a story about a Spanish boy who had perished as a result of climbing into an airplane’s undercarriage.

Without a pressurized compartment, that boy had been exposed to the high altitude. It ultimately resulted in his death.

Keith’s father had hoped to talk his daring son out of taking such a chance, but it seems to have motivated him to board a plane for Japan. Keith, who was born in 1956, was a curious young man who enjoyed being active.

In fact, his family had just returned from a trip abroad to sate his wanderlust. Unfortunately, he had a tendency to disappear, and even a lengthy international trip could not stop his wanderlust.

But when they got back home, Keith Sapsford started to feel restless. His parents decided that he needed some structure and formalized discipline. Keith was deemed to be best suited for Boys’ Town, a Roman Catholic school situated in Sydney’s southern region.

This facility specialized in working with troubled kids who required structure and a formal system of discipline. Helping him find the best path seemed right in their parents’ eyes.

Keith was only in the institution for two weeks before he was able to escape because the facility misjudged his sense of adventure. Keith may not have even known the plane’s destination when he climbed into the wheel well; it is unclear what made him decide to go to the airport.

It is not surprising that a teenager was able to sneak onto the tarmac because regulations at major airports were simpler than those we deal with today.

Keith decided to take a chance when he saw a Douglas DC-8 getting ready to take off. Unlike that Spanish boy, he believed he would be able to survive because Keith would be in the wheel well. Keith thought he could escape the perils of exposure to high altitude.

Keith Sapsford did not realize, however, that after takeoff, when the plane’s wheels retracted, the wheel-well compartment would reopen. Keith died after falling 200 feet as a result of that.

The evidence, in his father’s opinion, suggested that Keith might have also been mowed down by the wheels as they tried to retract. In either case, a family suffered a tragic loss of life and heartbreak as a result. That heartbreak would last for more than 40 years, until his parents died.

One study by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority revealed that only one out of every four stowaways on an airplane make it through the flight. On short, low-altitude flights, survivors board as stowaways; however, when an aircraft reaches cruising altitude, there are no surviving stowaways.

Statistics show that over the course of 85 flights, there were 96 attempts to stow away in the wheel-well compartments between 1947 and 2012. 23 of them were still alive. Thus, 73 people lost their lives while trying to obtain a free trip.

Ignoring this information and making an attempt to stow away can end tragically, as Keith Sapsford’s tale demonstrates.

A Photographer Snaps Heartbreaking Fall

John Gilpin, a beginner photographer, just so happened to be at the airport. He was photographing activities at the airport in the hopes that one or two would turn out well. John would eventually capture Keith Sapsford as he plunged to his death, despite the fact that he was unaware of this at the time.

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Photo credit:

Before the plane took off, Keith had already spent a number of hours in the wheel well. Experts later discovered handprints, footprints, and clothing threads when they examined the plane. To demonstrate that Keith had boarded the aircraft, they required all available proof.

Even more tragically, Keith would have probably frozen or suffocated to death if he hadn’t fallen out of the plane. It was not oxygenated and the compartment reached freezing temperatures.

Keith Sapsford had little insulation against the change in temperature that would happen as the plane rose to its cruising altitude because he was only wearing a short-sleeved shirt and shorts. There wasn’t enough room in their compartment for both him and the retracting wheels, so even they posed a threat.

Surprisingly, John didn’t become aware of what he had photographed until almost a week later. John noticed a print of a boy falling from the plane feet first while developing his photos from the day at the airport. He appeared to be reaching up with his hands in an effort to grab onto something and prevent falling.

The image serves as a chilling reminder of the young boy’s tragic death while making a last-ditch effort to leave his school and see the outside world.

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