WASHINGTON - The body of a young stowaway was found inside a compartment near the wheel well of an Air Force cargo plane that had landed in Germany, U.S. military officials said Tuesday, triggering questions about the security of an aircraft that had made several stops in Africa.
Air Force personnel found the boy's body Sunday night after spotting an orange cloth in a small opening by the landing gear while airmen during a detailed inspection of the C-130J aircraft when it landed at Ramstein Air Base. When they tugged on the wet cloth, they discovered it was attached to a boy in the compartment, officials said.
The Pentagon's press secretary, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said the stowaway was a black male who may have been of African origin. The plane was on a routine mission in Africa and had made stops in Senegal, Mali, Chad, Tunisia and Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily before arriving at Ramstein.
A senior U.S. official said Tuesday that initial indications suggest that the boy likely climbed aboard in Mali. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about an incident under investigation and requested anonymity.
A stowaway aboard a military plane is a significant security breach. No Africa Command senior leaders were on the flight.
"Security is going to be looked at here. Obviously it would be," Kirby said. "We try to provide as much security as we can for our aircraft when they're operating in remote locations, and this will all be part of the investigation."
He added, however, that some of the airfields where the planes land are very remote and the security isn't always up to the standards that are followed in the U.S. and other nations.
Kirby had no details about how well-guarded the plane was during the Africa stops and said it was unclear how the boy managed to get into the compartment.
"We'll learn what happened here and if there's corrective action that needs to be taken, we'll take it," he said.
The body was not detected in routine pre-flight and post-flight checks during the trip, but was found during a more detailed maintenance inspection of the cargo plane, said Kirby. The body was turned over to German authorities for an autopsy and possible identification, he said.
Kirby said the cause of death had not yet been determined, but lab results from samples taken from the body were negative for communicable diseases. An Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed at least 670 people, the largest outbreak in history with deaths blamed on the disease in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria.
Kirby said it is not known exactly when or where the stowaway entered the compartment. The two-day delay in making the incident public was due to the process of having to remove the body, do the lab tests and provide official notifications to the German government, he said.
The Air Force is doing its own investigation, which will include a review of any potential security lapses.
In April, a Somali immigrant survived a flight from San Jose International Airport in California to Hawaii stowed away in the wheel well of a Boeing 767 commercial airliner.