In 2015, it was reported that a man fell from a plane into the streets of West London. The man, Carlito Vale, died as he hit the ground. But with him was another man, who survived. Documentary filmmaker Rich Bentley has made it "his mission" to find out more.
"He was a quiet man [...] a good man," say the people who knew Carlito Vale in Rich Bentley’s documentary on Channel 4 in the UK "The man who fell from the sky" - a documentary that was five years in the making.
But Vale's life ended on the streets of West London when he was about 30. Local residents have unfortunately experienced a few people falling from the sky in this area as it is on the flight path towards Heathrow. "The planes open their undercarriages round about here," explains one woman, looking up at the sky.
Local resident Jim Kugele recalls one of the deaths. Looking out of his window, he saw "a young black guy lying there. His head was on the curb and there was brain matter spread across the pavement and on some of the cars."
An orphan from Beira, Mozambique
Rich Bentley flew out to Mozambique to meet Jose Cardoso, who grew up with Carlito in an orphanage in Beira, Mozambique. He is keen to find out more about who Carlito Vale was before he became the "man who fell from the sky."
Cardoso tells Bentley that Carlito was a "smart young man, very charismatic." He adds with a smile, remembering his friend: "he was strong, clever, he always spoke slowly, slowly, like he didn’t know how to talk." Cardoso laughs.
Cardoso and Vale were part of a generation of street kids, explains Bentley, who were orphaned or abandoned as a result of the 15-year civil war, which raged through Mozambique until 1992, costing the lives of one million Mozambicans.
'109 recorded attempts to stow away'
During the course of Bentley's five years of research into this story, he found out that there have been 109 recorded attempts of people trying to stow away in airplanes - and only 24 people have actually survived the journey.
London is one of the most popular destinations for these stowaway passengers. One of the first recorded attempts was in 1996 when a man stowed away in a plane in New Delhi, India, bound for London.
Sadly, like Carlito Vale, the man did not survive the journey. That plane was flown by British pilot Mike Post. "We were delayed before taking off for about ten minutes," recalls Post, surmising that this must have been the moment when a young man stowed away into the landing gear of his plane.
Climbing up is one thing; but as the gear is raised once the plane has taken off, Post thinks you would probably have only about 15 or 20 seconds to get clear of the wheels as the huge machinery is raised into the wheel house.
Bentley climbs up into the landing gear to see for himself the tiny ledge where the man must have hoped for survival. The thin metal casing does not provide enough protection for most people once the plane has reached its flying altitude of around 10,000 meters.
Those he left behind
The lack of oxygen and the depressurization means it is difficult for oxygen to get to the brain. The extreme cold can also be deadly. Most of the people who have survived a trip in the plane’s landing carriage have done so on shorter flights, which sometimes fly at a slightly lower altitude.
Back in Mozambique, Cardoso takes Bentley to meet Anna, Vale's wife. When he arrives at Anna's small, partially open-sided house, Bentley discovers that the two of them had a daughter together, Shamilla.
She sits quietly reading a school book, concentrating hard and keeping away from the camera.
"Carlito was a good person, a good dad, who gave everything for his daughter," says Anna with a quiet smile. It turns out that he would leave fairly regularly to work in South Africa, which is where he met a man who Bentley thinks was called Themba Cabeka.
Cabeka reportedly survived that 11 hour flight. But remains elusive to find. When Rich Bentley meets Anna, all his attempts to track down Cabeka have failed. Anna doesn't know anything about him either. She says, on Vale's last trip to South Africa, she was left in the dark about what he was apparently planning to do, i.e. to stow away on a plane to get to the UK for a better life.
'He would leave me in the dark'
"Carlito was working in South Africa. When he went away on these trips I thought it was OK but then this time he went away without saying anything," explains Anna.
"I was annoyed because sometimes he wouldn’t pick up his phone and he would leave me in the dark," says Anna. The first Anna found out about what had happened to Vale was, she says, when the police arrived and asked to do a DNA test on their daughter.
"They came back and said it was true," says Anna, her palms opening outwards as if to say, "this is what life has dealt me."
"It’s sad missing someone with whom you have lived for a long time," she says, her eyes downcast.
'I was sixteen then'
Anna says that Vale was a "very cautious, timid person." She is convinced it must have been someone else’s idea to attempt to stow away in an aeroplane. Bentley shows Anna and her daughter the two pictures he has of Vale and Anna, which were published in an article about Vale in the British newspaper The Guardian.
"I was sixteen then," says Anna smiling at the memory. "It was the first time I went to visit him at the orphanage." Shamilla quietly wipes away a tear after looking at the pictures.
Anna says she doesn’t recognize her father but after a question from Cardoso, it turns out that this is the first time Shamilla has seen a picture of her dead father.
"I am very grateful to all the people who continue to recognize he was a human being," says Anna, as Bentley and Cardoso leave her neighborhood.
Back in the UK, on his way home to his family for Christmas in December 2019, Bentley receives a call. He says he was about to give up hope of finding the man who survived that 11-hour journey from South Africa, but on his phone is a message from a man he had approached in Liverpool a couple of years earlier while he was on the trail of Themba Cabeka.
"Themba is now going by the name Justin," explains Bentley, "which might explain why I have struggled to find him." As Bentley brings the viewers up to date, his film follows Justin making his way slowly along a Liverpool street on crutches - his left leg hanging a few inches off the ground.
It is not directly explained in the film exactly what happened to Justin’s leg but Bentley says that Justin suffered "life-changing injuries as a result of that 11-hour flight."
The survivor: Justin's story
Today, Justin explains to Bentley that he is "just doing fine." He seems to like Liverpool, saying the people in the city are "gentle and nice." Bentley agrees that people from Liverpool are renowned for being friendly across the UK.
"Everybody’s got their own situations, they leave because something is happening in their background," says Justin as he swings along beside Bentley in Liverpool.
Justin says he was brought up by his grandmother, and that his life in South Africa was "very hard." When he was young he had no contact with his own mother.
Justin became homeless at about "13 or 14 years old," he says. His grandmother passed away in 2009. He was forced to drop out of school, unable to pay the school fees.
"Justin grew up in a poverty-stricken township in Johannesburg, where violence and gangs left him broken," narrates Bentley.
'He opened his heart to me'
Justin says he met Vale "in a club" in South Africa. He says Vale didn’t have a place to stay ,and so Justin offered to share his tent. "He opened his heart to me and I opened my heart to him," says Justin. A friendship developed.
"He was like a good guy, because he was quiet, he didn’t like violence," says Justin. Bentley says that Justin had reached "breaking point," and Vale was keen too to make it to Europe for a better life. They came up with the idea of stowing away together, explains Bentley.
Justin explains how they studied engineering and physics books about how and where to get into a plane, but they seem to have failed to consider the dangers of the cold, the loss of pressure and oxygen.
"To be honest, for me the oxygen, all that thing, it didn’t really matter to me, as long as I just found myself out, from where I wanted to be out," Justin explains.
All that mattered to both men, explains the film, was fulfilling a dream of a better life, where they had a chance of trying something different, something better than the lives and the poverty they had been dealt.
"Everything was just falling apart," remembers Justin, "so I decided in 2015 to just get out of the country."
'Two t-shirts, three jackets, two jeans'
Justin insists no one else helped them. They dressed in black clothes so they wouldn’t be seen and wore several layers to guard against the cold. "Two t-shirts, three jackets, two jeans." They jumped over fences, says Justin, and then climbed into the plane.
He adds that he still bears the burn scars on his arm where he wrapped himself inside the cables of the landing gear so he wouldn’t fall out.
"We forced ourselves to be squeezed inside there," recalls Justin. "I can hear the engine running. I was not far from the engine, the engine was opposite but outside. You can feel it when it is rotating," says Justin, humming to impersonate the engine and circling his finger to imitate its turning.
Justin remembers seeing the houses below him from the wheel house, and the wheels coming inside. He says he remembers Vale saying "yeah we made it," as the plane took off from Johannesburg.
And then the rest is blank: "the (lack of) oxygen made me go dizzy, and knocked me out," says Justin.
The next thing he remembers is waking up on the tarmac at Heathrow Airport; he was "semi-conscious with a shattered leg," narrates Bentley. Justin was put on a stretcher by some guards. He says he spent six months "in a coma." At some point, he was told that his friend Carlito hadn't made it with him.
In search of a better life
A pathologist tells Bentley that from the trauma on Vale's body, he could tell that his heart was still beating and he was alive as he hit the ground. "Whether he was conscious or not, we don’t know," says the pathologist quietly.
Bentley explains that Justin is left with a huge sense of guilt that he made it and Vale didn’t: "I used to take him as my brother," explains Justin. "A brother from another mother," he smiles sadly.
"My life has been cut down to lose someone," he says. Justin says Vale is the only one who knows him and where he comes from: "He's still my friend, no matter that he's gone," he says. "Nobody is going to take his place."
Rich Bentley finishes his documentary by saying he still doesn’t really know why Vale had wanted to board that plane and stow away.
His attempts to retrace the footsteps of two of the people who tried to reach the UK have resulted in finding a "story of desperation, naivety, but also hope." Bentley concludes by saying he is "happy and proud that the UK has given Justin sanctuary, and he is now safe, to build a future for himself."
The film ends as Justin makes his way slowly along a Liverpool street on his crutches, a jaunty beanie on his head and a smart leather jacket keeping out the cold of the port city. A steady smile, perhaps tinged with sadness, plays on his face as he swings along determinedly.
This article was based entirely on a documentary film made by Rich Bentley, produced by Postcard Productions for Film Four, Channel 4 in the UK. https://www.postcard-productions.com/film
If you are in the UK, you have 20 days from the date of this article to watch the film on Channel 4 On demand.