Then airport officials noticed blood spattered on the fuselage and found a corpse and a small fortune in South African cash inside.
The discovery on Sunday led the Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe to impound the aircraft, an unmarked chartered MD11 freighter owned by Western Global Airlines, a well-established international cargo carrier based in Estero, Fla. As of Monday, the aircraft remained on the tarmac at the airport in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, and officials said they were still investigating.
The identity of the corpse was not clear. Western Global Airlines, which confirmed on Monday that it owned the plane, said in a statement that the corpse was suspected to have been a stowaway “who may have entered the airplane during a previous stop.”
The airline said the plane had been leased to Network Airline Management, a longtime customer based in Britain that uses Western Global Airlines aircraft and crews for several flights a week from Europe to Africa. Western Global said the cash was a shipment for the South African Reserve Bank.
Officials at Network Airline Management, whose headquarters are at Gatwick Airport, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Herald, Zimbabwe’s leading newspaper, which was among the first to report the episode, said the plane had been “stashed with millions of rands.” One million rand is equivalent to about $62,500.
The newspaper also said South Africa’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, Vusi Mavimbela, confirmed the episode but could not give further details.
News agency accounts said the crew members — two Americans, a South African and a Pakistani — had not been aware of the corpse. The accounts speculated that the person found dead, who had apparently sneaked into the landing gear opening, was crushed when the gear retracted after takeoff.
Western Global Airlines, which is privately owned, advertises itself as one of the world’s fastest-growing low-cost air cargo companies, with clients around the world. It flew dozens of humanitarian missions to West Africa during the height of the Ebola crisis.