The heartbreaking story behind photo of boy falling from plane above Sydney

Samuel Hussey
News Reporter

At just 14-years-old Keith Sapsford had an undeniable sense of adventure and was determined to travel the world. Nobody could ever have imagined just how tragically it would all end.

Sunday marked 49 years since the Randwick teen fell 60 metres from the wheel-well of a Japan Airlines plane taking off from Sydney Airport after an apparent attempt to stowaway on the Tokyo-bound flight.

According to a 1970 article published by the Herald Sun, Keith had just returned from an around the world trip with his parents, which they took him on in a bid to satisfy his innate curiosity for travel.

However upon return they quickly discovered that the trip only furthered his restlessness and unwavering desire for adventure.

Keith Sapsford fell from a Tokyo-bound Japan Air flight in 1970 after sneaking into the plane’s undercarriage. Source: John Gilpin via Reddit

His father, Charles Matthew Sapsford, eventually employed the assistance of Boys’ Town, a Roman Catholic Institution in Engadine, that he hoped might be able to calm Keith down.

But on Friday, February 21, Keith ran away after just a couple of weeks with the association. They reported him missing the next day.

Then on Sunday, he snuck onto the tarmac of Kingsford Airport, climbed up a plane’s wheel and entered the compartment where the wheel is stored during the flight.

On that same morning, unaware of the tragedy that was about to unfold in front of him, amateur photographer John Gilpin was taking photos at the airport.

Even after Keith fell, Mr Gilpin was oblivious to the tragedy he had captured. It wasn’t until one week later when he had his film developed he saw the now-infamous image.

Experts believe Keith hadn’t equated for what would happen when the wheels retracted after takeoff. Source: Getty (file image)

Technicians believe that the teen had been hiding there for some time before takeoff and that Keith hadn’t fully comprehended that the compartment would reopen to receive the contracting wheel.

Medical examiners pointed out that he would have likely died anyway due to low temperatures and lack of oxygen.

Father had warned him of stowaway dangers

In the wake of his tragic death, Mr Sapsford told police of his son’s proneness to wander and that he had warned him of the inherent dangers of attempting to hitch a ride on an aircraft.

A mechanical and industrial engineer by trade, Mr Sapsford said just months earlier he and Keith discussed a recent stowaway case about a Spanish boy who also died while hiding in a plane’s undercarriage.

According to the Herald Sun, he had pointed out that if he didn’t fall to his death, that he would likely be crushed by the retracting wheel or freeze to death.

Mr Sapsford passed away on October 21, 2015, aged 93.

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