Western Global Airlines of Estero, Florida, the American corporate owner of a cargo jet impounded in Harare on Sunday after a bloodied body of a man was discovered aboard during a refueling stop, says the person was a stowaway though authorities in Zimbabwe are still investigating the incident that has grabbed world attention.
Western Global is privately owned by James K. Neff and Sunny Neff.
A statement from the owners said the MD11 aircraft, en-route on Sunday to Durban, South Africa, from Munich, Germany, was carrying a “diplomatic shipment” for the South African Reserve Bank.
It expressed its condolence over the death saying, "We are saddened that a person has lost his life by stowing aboard one of our cargo aircraft. As compared to other forms of transportation, stowaways on airplanes are rare, but almost always result in fatality. In most cases airport security prevents this from happening but it should never be attempted for any reason.”
The company acknowledged that it was working “closely with the Zimbabwean authorities as they fully investigate this situation. We appreciate their professionalism and the care they have shown our crew, our cargo and our aircraft. Along with our customer, Network Airline Management, we express our condolences and support the efforts of the Zimbabwean government. We also appreciate the dedication of our crew, the patience of the South African government while awaiting its shipment and the engagement of the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe.”
US embassy spokesperson, Karen Kelly told VOA Studio 7 that they are referring all questions to the Civil Aviation of Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwean Republic Police spokesperson, senior assistant commissioner Charity Charamba said investigations are still under way and it’s a long process.
Charamba added that the post mortem is being done in Zimbabwe.
The South African Reserve Bank says it is still "working closely" with relevant authorities to have a consignment of its bank notes, which were detained at Harare International Airport, released and transported to South Africa.
Charamba said she can only focus on the investigation into the cause of death and not the money, believed to millions of rands.
The statement added that Western Global Airlines is in continuous contact with its crew and when cleared to do so; “they will complete the last leg of this charter."
The Western Global Airlines aircraft in question is leased to Network Airline Management, a logistics provider, which was engaged to deliver a diplomatic shipment of South African currency from Munich, Germany, to Durban on behalf of the South African Reserve Bank.
The company says, “All necessary documentation for the flight and its cargo was in order and in compliance with international law.”
The aircraft departed Munich, Germany's airport, on February 13, 2016, with a crew of three pilots and a mechanic as well as two passengers traveling as couriers for the diplomatic shipment.
The aircraft made a refueling stop at Zimbabwe's Harare International Airport approximately nine hours later. During the refueling process, ground crew attending the aircraft noticed unusual streaking on the nose gear and upon further investigation; a deceased male was discovered in a compartment adjacent to the wheel well.
At present, the identity or nationality of the deceased is not known. It is not clear when or how the deceased accessed the aircraft and Western Global is working with authorities to back trace the aircraft's route of travel.
The company has confirmed that its normal service, safety and security inspections “which meet or exceed all security, maintenance and operational standards were performed by its maintenance personnel prior to the flight and that cockpit crews conducted exterior walk-arounds prior to departure.”
But the company says, “The area where the body was found is an area not visible to these inspections and there is no indication the stowaway's presence affected the operation of the aircraft.”
How common are stowaways? Since 1996, there have been 105 stowaways on 94 flights worldwide, according to the Federal Aviation Administration in an e-mail to USA TODAY Network.
More than 76% of those attempts resulted in deaths, the FAA says. The FAA's numbers reflect stowaways in the wheel wells, nose wells and other unpressurized areas.
The statistics don't include people who sneak into the cargo compartment or passenger area.
Stowaways in wheel wells, as in the most recent case, have to contend with freezing temperatures, lack of oxygen and the risk of being crushed by the plane's wheels.