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BEST OF 2021 How South African Stowaway Who Flew From Joburg to London Survived Flying Outside The Plane




It was a plan so outrageous it beggars belief. Two young men desperate to escape their lives of hunger and hardship pore over aircraft engineering books and hatch a scheme to stow away on a Boeing 747.




They sneak into OR Tambo International Airport, manage to evade security and then wait until after dark before jumping over perimeter fences and dashing out onto the apron where a British Airways plane is waiting to take off for London.


They creep into the landing gear of the aircraft, strap themselves in and manage to survive the 11-hour, 9 000 km flight, enduring temperatures of up to -60 C Celsius and speeds of more than 850 km/h. As the plane approaches Heathrow, disaster strikes. One of the men, Carlito Vale, falls to his death, landing in an office block in Richmond some 10km from the airport.




Incredibly, his friend Themba Cabeka survives to tell the tale – and it’s this story that is now the subject of a riveting documentary called The Man who Fell from the Sky. The motivation behind the men’s audacious plan is a tragic one: they felt they had nothing left to live for in South Africa. The United Kingdom, they thought, would offer them more chances of jobs, more opportunity for




“Everything was just falling apart so we decided in 2015 to just get out of the country and go somewhere else,” Themba (30) says.




Sneaking into the landing gear near the wheels of the jumbo jet took some courage. “We had to force ourselves to be squeezed in there,” he says. “I was not far from the engine. You could feel it outside when it was rotating. You could even see the houses down there when the plane was flying.”





Themba tethered himself to the plane with an electric cable wrapped around his arm but passed out on the flight from severe lack of oxygen.



The next thing he remembers is waking up on the runway in London with a shattered leg.



“The thing that made me wake up was the way I dropped out,” he recalls. “I was here, and the plane was there, and I was asking myself how I got out of the plane.”




He had fallen out as the plane engaged its landing gear and lost consciousness again soon after hitting the runway. Themba spent the next six months in a coma and woke to the news that Carlito (30) hadn’t made it. Five years later, he still hasn’t come to terms with his friend’s death.



“I used to [think of] him like he was my brother,” Themba says in the documentary. “He was the only guy who knew me more than anybody and knew where I came from.”



Both men had troubled childhoods. Themba (30) was raised by his grandmother in a township in Johannesburg after his mother abandoned him when he was three months old.

“My background was very, very hard,” he says. “I dropped out of school because I wasn’t able to pay school fees anymore. It’s not that I was raised to be homeless, it’s just things didn’t go the right way.”



When he was 14, his beloved gogo passed away. Alone and afraid, he ended up living in a tent on the streets near OR Tambo. There he was often the victim of gangs, he says in the documentary, which was recently aired on Britain’s Channel 4. “My life was going to waste. It’s very hard being homeless. I tried to build myself up, but it was too hard.”




Then he met Carlito in a Johannesburg nightclub. Like Themba, Carlito was homeless. He’d grown up in an orphanage in Mozambique before moving to Uganda then South Africa in search of work.




The two took an instant liking to each other and Themba invited Carlito to live with him in his tent. “He opened his heart to me, and I opened my heart to him. He was a good guy because he was quiet, he didn’t like violence. He liked to do his own thing.”



Carlito was interested in engineering and had a collection of books on the subject, including one on the intricacies of aircraft. After studying the books, the two men came up with the stowaway idea.



Themba admits they were so eager to escape they didn’t consider the lack of oxygen at such high altitudes.



On 18 June 2015, they put their plan in motion. Wearing two T-shirts, three jackets and two pairs of jeans each to keep warm, the men broke into the airport and hid aboard the plane – the first time either of them had been anywhere near an aircraft.




As the plane took off, Themba recalls his friend shouting, “Yeah we made it!”. Not long afterwards, he passed out due to lack of oxygen.


Minutes before landing, Carlito fell from sky. His body was found in an air-conditioning unit of the Richmond office block.




Carlito had a wife, Anna, and 11-year-old daughter, Shamila, in Mozambique and planned to bring his family to London once he was settled. “He said he wanted to be a DJ and he was going to go back and get his daughter after a few years,” Themba says.



When police in Mozambique contacted Anna after his body was found, she was shocked. The last time she’d seen her husband he was on his way to South Africa for work. “The police came and did a DNA test on our girl. Then they came back and told us it was him,” she says.




Anna describes Carlito as a doting father “who gave everything” for his daughter. “It’s sad missing someone you have lived with for a very long time. I always think about him because we have a daughter together.”



Themba, meanwhile, made a miraculous recovery. He broke his leg in several places in the fall and still uses crutches but otherwise he’s doing well. “I was lucky not to hurt my head,” he says. “I had two burn marks on my arm, but it’s okay now because I had surgery.”



Doctors believe he survived because the freezing temperatures kept him in a state of “suspended animation”, the Daily Mail reports. With a lowered core body temperature, the heart, brain and other critical organs are placed into a “standby mode” in which they do not require nearly as much oxygen, thus limiting damage to cells and organs.




Though he’s grateful to be alive, he wants to put the past behind him. Themba applied for asylum in the UK and was successful.




He now lives in a one-bedroom flat in Liverpool, has changed his name to Justin and is trying to forge a career in hip-hop.



He’s carving a new life for himself, he says, just like he and Carlito dreamt. “We’ve come a long journey together.



“He’s still my friend even if he’s gone.”


SOURCES:,,, Channel4

Robert Tapfumaneyi