He recalled how he emerged from a coma months later to learn his best friend had fallen 5,000ft from the aircraft to his death.
Themba Cabeka, whose identity is revealed for the first time, was unconscious in hospital for six months after being discovered on the ground at Heathrow Airport. He had been starved of oxygen and subjected to temperatures of -60C as the British Airways jet flew from Johannesburg on June 18, 2015.
Only minutes before landing, Carlito Vale – a friend who had also escaped the poverty of their South African camp site and had crawled with him into the wheel arch of the Boeing 747-400 – fell from BA Flight 54. His body was found in the air-conditioning unit of an office block in Richmond, six miles from Heathrow.
Cabeka, 30, recalls: ‘When the plane was flying, I could see the ground, I could see the cars, I could see small people. After a little time, I passed out through lack of oxygen. The last thing I remember just after the plane took off was Carlito saying to me: “Yeah, we’ve made it.” ’
INJURIES: Themba Cabeka (right), who has now adopted a British name, Justin, still uses crutches after falling from the plane at Heathrow. He is pictured with Channel 4 producer Rich Bentley who tracked him down to a flat in Liverpool for a documentary, The Man Who Fell From The Sky, to be screened tomorrow night
He says that when he came out of his coma, a police officer showed him Carlito’s passport and asked: ‘Do you know him?’ He replied: ‘Of course I know him. That’s my friend, Carlito.’
The officer told him: ‘He never made it. He fell on top of a building.’
There have been 109 recorded stowaway attempts around the world – London being one of the most popular destinations – but only 24 people who took their chances in a plane’s landing gear have survived. The first known survivor was Bas Wie, 12, who hid on a flight from Indonesia to Australia in 1946.
Only two people have lived after stowing away to Britain: Pardeep Saini, a car mechanic from Punjab, who endured a ten-hour flight from Delhi to London in 1996, and Cabeka.
Even now, 25 years after his escapade, Saini – now married with two sons and working as a driver at Heathrow – is often traumatised by the experience, during which his younger brother froze to death.
Little was known about Cabeka until Channel 4 producer Rich Bentley tracked him down to a flat in Liverpool for a documentary, The Man Who Fell From The Sky, to be screened tomorrow night. Cabeka has now adopted a British name, Justin.
His story began when he met Vale in a Johannesburg nightclub and they plotted their illegal journey to Britain. Vale had been a homeless street kid who’d grown up in an orphanage following the civil war in Mozambique. Then estranged from his wife and daughter, now aged 11, he dreamt of a better life abroad.
Cabeka, who never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother when he was three months old, had been living since the age of seven in a campsite near Johannesburg Airport.
He said the violence and gang warfare in the city had left him emotionally broken. ‘My background was very hard. I was raised by my cousin, who adopted me as a child. Everything was normal until she passed away. I was going to school but I had to drop out because I couldn’t pay the fees.
‘When my cousin died, everything started to break down. So I thought, “that’s the end for me”.
‘I was living in a township but people around there were jealous because I had a house. They wanted to kill me to get the house. I ended up in hospital for three days and had to leave the township.’ After ending up in the camp near the airport, he said he had to beg for money for food. ‘My life was going to waste. It’s very hard being homeless. I tried to build myself up but it was too hard.’
It was at this point that he met Vale. He said: ‘I was sitting at a table inside the club. He came over to me looking for cigarettes and I gave him one. I saw he had nothing so I said: “Come sit down and join me and drink these beers.”
‘He told me he was married but he’d broken up with his wife and he had a daughter.
‘He told me he was homeless. I said: “Look at me. I’m like you. We have to stick together.” ’
Cabeka had been starved of oxygen and subjected to temperatures of -60C as the British Airways jet flew from Johannesburg on June 18, 2015. His friend Carlito Vale fell from the aircraft and his body was found in an office block in Richmond, six miles from Heathrow
Cabeka invited Vale to live with him at the campsite and the pair grew close. ‘He opened his heart to me and I opened my heart to him, so we became friends. He was a good guy because he was quiet. He didn’t like violence. We had the same thoughts because of our situation. I didn’t have any family so I thought: “It’s better for me to leave the country and look for somewhere to start.” He felt the same.’
Their escape plan was hatched after looking at Vale’s collection of engineering books which included one about aeroplanes. Cabeka says: ‘I took down all the details so that if we wanted to go on a plane, there’s the way to do it.’
And so they went to the airport on the evening of June 18, 2015.
‘The airport was guarded so we jumped over the fence when it was dark,’ Cabeka said. ‘We dressed in black because we have to dress like no one sees us – two T-shirts, three jackets, two jeans.’
After getting over the fence, they hid for about 15 minutes until they spotted a plane ready to take off.
It is not clear if they had researched which plane to jump on but they chose British Airways because they recognised the livery. Cabeka says they deliberately avoided American airliners because they didn’t want to fly over large expanses of water.
The BA jumbo to London took off at 10.15pm. It was the first time either man had been on an aeroplane. ‘We had to force ourselves to be squeezed inside. I could hear the engine running,’ he said.
‘My heart had pounded before, but that day it was not in my mind at all because I had just taken the decision to do it.
‘I knew how dangerous it was but I just took my own chances. I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I had to leave Africa to survive.’
Cabeka tied himself to the plane with an electric cable wrapped around his arm. Aviation experts say it is very rare for stowaways to survive in an unheated, unpressurised part of an aircraft. There is room, though, in the four sets of a 747’s landing gear, each in a housing the size of a car, as long as they stay in one of the corners away from the wheels when they retract.
Very soon, though, Cabeka passed out through lack of oxygen.
He still cannot believe he managed to survive temperatures that would have dropped to -60C. The first thing he recalled was lying on the runway with a shattered leg.
‘The thing that made me wake up is the way I dropped out on the runway,’ said Cabeka, who still uses crutches due to injuries sustained when he fell. ‘I was here. The plane was there. I was asking myself, “How did I get out of the plane?” I could see these guys, they were the guards, they carried me up and I passed out again. I woke up in hospital after being in a coma for six months.’
Doctors believe Cabeka survived because the freezing temperatures kept him in a state of ‘suspended animation’. 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.
‘I was lucky not to hurt my head,’ he said. ‘I had two burn marks on my arm, but it is OK now because I had surgery. But something is still wrong with my leg. I’m hoping they can sort it out.’
He clung to the undercarriage of a British Airways jumbo jet and survived an 11-hour, 5,639-mile flight from Johannesburg to London (file image)
Cabeka applied for asylum to stay in the UK and was granted leave to remain – though he is coy about on what grounds that was granted.
He simply says: ‘When I was applying as an asylum-seeker, I went through the process and was accepted.’
He now lives in a one-bedroom flat in Liverpool and is unable to work due to his injury.
‘I’m now waiting to get a passport. It takes five years to get a British passport and then I will be able to fly on a plane.’ He jokes: ‘I will be a Scouser then.’
He still struggles with the guilt that, while he survived, his friend didn’t. ‘I missed his funeral because I was in a coma.
‘I was sad that he was buried and I couldn’t say goodbye. So I went to put flowers on his grave.
‘I miss his presence. I used to call him “my brother from another mother”. He’s the only guy who knew me, more than anybody, where I come from.
‘I feel we’ve both come on a long journey together so he’s still my friend – no matter that he’s gone.’
Documentary-maker Bentley said the death of Vale – and many other stowaways – was unlikely to stop other people caught in desperate poverty stowing away on planes.
‘I’ve spoken to several stowaways and their story has been the same,’ he said. ‘People like Themba Cabeka are in an impossible situation and don’t have a choice.
‘We’re inundated with stories of people trying to come to the UK. But, by exploring their stories – and speaking to them first-hand – it’s made me realise how extreme the circumstances they find themselves in.
‘I hope by highlighting this example, it resonates for others and gives a voice to people who are so desperate they don’t feel they have a choice.’
Despite the death of his friend and his own injuries, Cabeka says his decision to risk his life to start a new one here was worth it.
‘I had to leave Africa to survive. But I would give other people advice: It’s not safe. It’s a life-or-death situation.’
The Man Who Fell From The Sky, Channel 4, tomorrow, 10pm