Travelling via aeroplane for the first time and to another country is often an exciting experience to have. This was not the case for 30-year-old Themba Cabeka, as his first time aboard an aircraft was not in the comfortable seats of the Boeing 747-400, but rather its wheel arch.
Years after the harrowing experience, Cabeka finally tells his story of the 11-hour BA Flight 54 is shared through the documentary “The Man Who Fell From The Sky.”
— Channel 4 (@Channel4) January 4, 2021
Cabeka – who now goes by the name Justin – and his friend Carlito Vale had plans to leave South Africa for a better life.
According to The South African, on 18 June 2015, the two snuck into the plane’s undercarriage. “We had to force ourselves to be squeezed inside. I could hear the engine running,” said Cabeka.
“The airport was guarded so we jumped over the fence when it was dark.
“We dressed in black because we have to dress like no one sees us – two T-shirts, three jackets, and two jeans.”
Cabeka stated that they deliberately avoided American airliners, as they did not want to fly over the oceans.
Minutes before landing, Vale fell to his death. His body was later discovered on top of a building in Richmond, London.
“…it isn’t the first time we’ve had people falling out of aeroplanes in this area,” said Richmond resident Janette Semmens in the documentary.
In an interview with the Guardian, Cabeka said, “When the plane landed, I fell out and remember thinking that Carlito must still be in it.”
Cabeka only heard of his friend’s death when he awoke from a 6-month coma after being discovered on the grounds of Heathrow airport. Not only was Cabeka starved of oxygen during the flight, but he also endured temperatures of less than -60°C, says the publication.
TimesLive reports that when Cabeka woke up in the hospital, the police showed him a picture of Vale and asked him if he knew the deceased. “I said yeah. They told me that he didn’t make it, and I was shocked.”
After finding an unconscious Cabeka that year, British Airways released a statement, saying, “[we are] working with the Metropolitan Police and the authorities in Johannesburg to establish the facts surrounding this very rare situation.”
The publication also reports that doctors believe Cabeka survived the 9000km flight because the freezing temperatures, plus him clinging onto electrical wiring, kept him in a state of “suspended animation”.
“The last thing I remember just after the plane took off was Carlito saying to me: ‘Yeah, we’ve made it,'” said Cabeka, according to the Daily Mail.
Cabeka also suffered a few injuries – two burn marks on his arm and a shattered leg. Due to this injury, he still uses crutches. He said that he was lucky that his head had not been injured, reports The South African.
Cabeka also applied for asylum to stay in the United Kingdom. “When I was applying as an asylum-seeker, I went through the process and was accepted.
“I’m now waiting to get a passport. It takes five years to get a British passport and then I will be able to fly on a plane.”
He now lives in a flat in Liverpool and unable to work, due to his injury, the publication reports.