A Delta jet bound for China showered dozens of children at Los Angeles-area schools with jet fuel it had dumped in preparation for an emergency landing Tuesday.
Delta flight 89 had just taken off from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) fully laden with fuel for its trans-Pacific flight to Shanghai Tuesday when it had to circle back to the airport for an emergency landing. The plane was just 25 minutes into its 13-hour journey when it dumped its fuel.
The Delta Boeing 777 carrying 149 passengers turned north almost immediately after it flew over the Los Angeles coast, putting it on a path over Malibu and east toward Burbank and Glendale. The plane then circled back west and dumped its fuel in the vicinity of Cudahy.
The fuel dump from the low-flying Delta plane doused the Park Avenue Elementary School playground in Cudahy just minutes before noon Tuesday. Students, teachers, and others at San Gabriel Elementary, Graham Elementary, Tweedy Elementary, 93rd Street Elementary and Jordan High School were also showered with fuel.
Paramedics treated about 60 people for minor injuries, mostly related to fuel exposure, which can irritate the eyes, throat and skin. There were no reports of fires related to the dump.
The incident angered local officials. Many took to social media and the press to asking why the Delta plane unloaded its fuel over a densely populated urban area instead of over an unpopulated area as federal rules mandate.
“Sadly, our entire community has been adversely impacted by this incident, including dozens of children,” Cudahy City Councilman Jack Guerrero said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I am calling for a full federal investigation into the matter and expect full accountability from responsible parties.”
Pilots who need to make an emergency landing must bring the aircraft down to its landing weight. If that involves eliminating the plane’s load of fuel, then pilots typically contact air traffic controllers who will try to direct the plane.
Fuel drops usually occur at an altitude of 5,000 feet, which gives the fuel time to evaporate as it falls to the ground. Delta’s fuel dump occurred at less than half that altitude.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a statement saying it “is thoroughly investigating the circumstances behind” the incident.
— The FAA (@FAANews) January 14, 2020
“There are special fuel-dumping procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major U.S. airport. These procedures call for fuel to be dumped over designated unpopulated areas, typically at higher altitudes so the fuel atomizes and disperses before it reaches the ground,” the agency said in a statement.”
A Delta spokesperson said the pilots were forced to dump fuel when they did so it could safely make an emergency landing.
Despite federal requirements, airline captains are “authorized to break any rule in the book” if the situation calls for it, Douglas Moss, an aviation consultant and a retired United Airlines pilot, told the Los Angeles Times.