The Tragic Death Of Stowaway Keith Sapsford

The idea of sneaking onto a plane, ship, or train to stow away as part of a grand adventure is usually the stuff of movies, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened in real life. One such case is that of 14-year-old Australian Keith Sapsford, whose 1970 attempt to hide out in an airplane’s wheel compartment ended in his death when the doors to the compartment opened after takeoff so the wheels could then retract back into the plane, says The New Zealand Herald.  

In an unusual twist to the tragic story, an amateur photographer named John Gilpin happened to be at the airport that day taking photos as the plane was taking off. He was far away and didn’t notice until he developed the film about a week later that he’d captured Sapsford falling to his death, per The New Zealand Herald. 

According to a 1970 newspaper article in The Age, about 350 people watched as something that looked like a sack fell from the Japan Airlines plane en route from Sydney to Manila, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. They observed the object, which turned out to be Sapsford, “skim along the tarmac” before coming to a stop and lying still.  According to The Age, Sapsford’s “face had been badly marked,” and he wasn’t immediately identified. 

Keith Sapsford stowed away seeking adventure

According to another newspaper clipping published on Find-a-grave, Sapsford’s father, Charles Sapsford, said his son was a “wanderer” who wanted to “keep on the move,” saying Keith picked up the travel bug after the family went on an extensive trip the year prior. 

Ironically, the elder Sapsford was a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and told the paper he’d warned his son of the dangers of stowing away — specifically he part about the wheel-well doors opening in mid-air — and the other ways stowaways often die in transit, including from a lack of oxygen and freezing temperatures at high altitudes. 

But like many teenagers before and since, Keith Sapsford did not heed his father’s advice. Instead, he ran away from a Roman Catholic Boys’ school where he’d been placed by his parents a couple of weeks prior wearing nothing but a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, per The Age

It’s not clear whether Sapsford was running from or toward something — unfortunately, though, he didn’t make it far. 

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