In Captain America: The First Avenger, there's a scene in which Captain America gets into the villain's plane by holding onto the landing gear as it's taking off and waiting for it to be retracted. How realistic is this scene, when applied to modern airplanes?

Could you theoretically gain access to a large, modern airplane by just holding onto the landing gear - assuming, of course, you managed to hold on? Do the landing gears of large modern planes retract into interiors that have access to the rest of the plane, or do those interiors tend to be sealed off? And for that matter, how hard would it be to hold on to a plane's landing gear as it's taking off?

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    $\begingroup$ And on our site we usually prefer that you only ask one questions at a time... But in summary: People have snuck into aircraft landing gear, some have survived, some have not. But, to my knowledge, no modern airliner has access from the landing gear to the cockpit. $\endgroup$
    – Jay Carr
    Aug 26 '16 at 0:53
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    $\begingroup$ See also: Commando (1985), where Arnie gets out of the plane via the wheel well. $\endgroup$ Aug 26 '16 at 8:39
  • $\begingroup$ Nothing is realistic about airplanes in Hollywood. $\endgroup$ Aug 26 '16 at 22:12

Though 'getting on/off aircraft through landing gear' is a favorite trope in movies, it is practically impossible in most of the modern airliners. Airliners are pressurized, and as a result, the cabin (and cockpit) area is in reality one big cylinder, cut off from everything else. So, no accessibility from the landing gear area.

For example, the following image shows the landing gear bay (the area into which the landing gear retracts into) of a Boeing 787.

787 wheel well

Image from dailymail.co.uk

As a result, though the list of stowaways in landing gear area is long, to the best of my knowledge, no one has entered the aircraft through it.

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    $\begingroup$ While this is a good answer, I feel like referring to an airliner as a sealed cylinder or a "pressure vessel" (Carlo's answer) is misleading. $\endgroup$
    – Coxy
    Aug 26 '16 at 4:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Coxy It is entirely accurate: The main body of an airliner is a pressure vessel - otherwise it would not be possible to pressurize the cabin for high altitude flight. It is not perfectly cylindrical - there are indents in the shape that allow the nose gear (among other things to stow) within the outer fuselage shape - but there is generally not a penetration at these points, and the wall in these areas is shaped specifically to withstand pressurization at altitude. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Aug 26 '16 at 4:34
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    $\begingroup$ But "sealed" would suggest that no air gets in or out, and this is not the case, thought it's a common misconception. Pressurization doesn't require a perfectly sealed vessel - just the ability to pump air in at least as fast as it leaks out. There are penetrations in this cylinder - notably the outflow valves - though admittedly they are much too small for a person. Obviously you know this, but it seems like the answer as it stands tends to perpetuate the misconception. $\endgroup$ Aug 26 '16 at 5:28
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    $\begingroup$ @NateEldredge For the purposes of this discussion. Any hole big enough for the Capt, would require an unrealistically powerful pump to maintain the dynamic pressure. In fact, it would almost be making the entire cabin into a jet... $\endgroup$
    – Aron
    Aug 26 '16 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ However, some aircraft do have an access hatch through the nose wheel well (747 IIRC). However once the plane pressurises, it would not be possible to open it over the pressure differential. And the pressurisation starts sometime during the take-off roll. It might be possible in such a plane during taxi though. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Aug 28 '16 at 21:34

Regarding holding onto the landing gear as the aircraft takes off, or otherwise getting into the wheel well, stowaways do try this on a regular basis.

As other answers have said though, they then find that there's no access through to the rest of the plane, so they're stuck in the wheel well. At cruising altitude (above 30,000ft) the air temperature will typically be below -50degC. Surviving at this temperature needs specialist clothing and breathing apparatus, which stowaways usually don't have. The result is that they usually freeze to death. Perhaps mercifully, they'll lose consciousness above about 10-15,000ft due to lack of oxygen, so they won't experience this happening to them.

At major international airports such as Heathrow, there are regular cases of bodies found in fields (or even in gardens) along the flightpath, as aircraft drop their landing gear and the frozen stowaway falls out.

Occasionally they do survive. Generally this will be because they've wrapped up warm before they leave. The aircraft tyres can also be warm, which helps too. And it's more likely on a shorter flight, of course. It's pretty rare though.

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    $\begingroup$ This doesn't seem to address the issue of access between the wheel well and aircraft interior at all. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Aug 26 '16 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling it does, but only in an extremely marginal way, while it should be the focus of the answer. $\endgroup$
    – Federico
    Aug 26 '16 at 14:04
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling The OP asked "And for that matter, how hard would it be to hold on to landing gear as a plane is taking off?" Evidence shows that people do manage it. Evidence also shows what happens to them. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Aug 26 '16 at 16:18
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    $\begingroup$ Do these stowaways really hold on to the landing gear during take-off, or do they hide in the wheel well much earlier? $\endgroup$ Aug 30 '16 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for the massive wait, I'd completely forgotten to come back to this question. It was a tough choice, cause the other answer illustrated one answer with a picture, but then it also only answered the one question. This answers both and goes into some really interesting depth. It would be made perfect by some images, and some sources for the bodies flying out of Heathrow planes - I love that fact. What I most love about this answer is the perspective it's written from - it documents the experience of the stowaway over the whole time and how it would eventually end. Really interesting read. $\endgroup$ Feb 2 '17 at 4:13

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