Like the rest of the UK, in 2015 journalist Rich Bentley was horrified to hear about a man who fell to his death as the landing gear of a plane was lowered during the descent towards Heathrow airport. The man, later identified as Carlito Vale, had been hiding in the wheel well throughout the duration of the flight from Johannesburg. News stories, however horrific, eventually ebb into oblivion, but Bentley became obsessed with the man’s tragic fate. Remarkably, his companion on the journey survived and had been rushed to hospital. Seeking to know what could possibly lead someone to undertake such a dangerous journey, Bentley vowed to find out more about the man who died, and to track down the miraculous survivor.
The dogged five-year search takes him thousands of miles, following the vaguest of leads from London to the Netherlands to Mozambique. He finds a name for the survivor: Thembo, who now seems to have vanished. A six-hour wait outside a hostel in Liverpool following a tip off proves fruitless, while the Home Office puts up “one brick wall after another”. He discovers that there have been 109 recorded attempts to stowaway in this desperate fashion, with London by far the favoured destination. Pilot Mike Post, whose flight from Delhi in 1996 marked the first recorded attempt in the UK, looks on as Bentley climbs into the wheel well of a jet to better envisage the men’s ordeal. Although the plane is on the ground, he still feels shaky as he contemplates the tiny compartment: “He may as well be outside.”
There’s gruesome testimony from residents of Richmond, under the flight path, who have seen the aftermath of such falls, and the pathologist with poignant details about Vale’s last moments. At 22,000ft the lungs would struggle to function, and lack of oxygen lead to nausea and confusion; at 35,000ft hypothermia sets in. But who was Vale before the tragedy? Gradually Bentley begins to put together a clearer picture of the man everyone calls a “good guy”. The detective elements of the story are as gripping as they are distressing. There are tears along the way, and not just of frustration. Vale’s friends are convinced that someone must have encouraged the quiet individual into this perilous act, and the mysterious Thembo remains elusive.
In Beira, Mozambique, Bentley discovers that Vale was one of a generation of street children left behind after the carnage of the civil war in which a million citizens died. Finally, on Christmas Eve 2019, an unexpected phone call sends Bentley back to Liverpool, sensing the quest may be at an end. This story of “desperation, naivety and hope” has an extraordinary coda.
On Channel 4 on January 4 at 10pm