Why did Delta's Shanghai-bound Boeing 777-200 dump jet fuel on school children in Los Angeles?

15 Jan 2020 by Michael Allen
Delta B777

A Delta Air Lines Boeing 777-200 bound for Shanghai Pudong that was making an emergency landing dumped fuel on six schools in Los Angeles, mildly injuring 60 adults and children, according to media reports.

On its way back to the airport, the plane dumped fuel over a five-mile swath that included five elementary schools and a high school, including at least one school where students were playing outside on a playground, school and fire officials said, according to The New York Times.

The students and staff members complained of minor skin irritation and breathing problems, but all declined transportation to hospitals, the newspaper added.

“Shortly after takeoff, Flight 89 from LAX to Shanghai experienced an engine issue requiring the aircraft to return quickly to LAX. The aircraft landed safely after a release of fuel, which was required as part of normal procedure to reach a safe landing weight,” Delta said in a statement emailed to Business Traveller Asia-Pacific.

“We are in touch with Los Angeles World Airports and the LA County Fire Department and share concerns regarding reported minor injuries to adults and children at a school in the area.”

The Los Angeles Times reports that the plane flew north over Malibu within four minutes after takeoff at 11:32am (local time). After encountering an engine problem, the journey back to the airport, in which the airline said it dumped fuel over urban southeastern Los Angeles County, took a looping route over the San Fernando Valley. The flight, which never flew higher than 8,000 feet, then moved over Griffith Park not long after, heading into southeastern LA County. Minutes later, the flight began making its return to LAX, looping back west.

Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 posted an image on Twitter of the plane’s flight path:

Los Angeles International Airport said in a statement posted to its Twitter account that it is “concerned about reports of impacts on the ground from the fuel release, and are in close cooperation with Delta and first responders as their investigations continue”.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said in a statement that it is “thoroughly investigating the circumstances behind today’s incident”. The FAA added that there are “special procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major US 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.”

Several videos of the plane dumping fuel have emerged on social media, such as the one below:

So why did the plane need to dump fuel?

Wesley Chan, a Hong Kong-based senior first officer with around 3,000 hours flying experience on the Boeing 777, explains to Business Traveller ­Asia-Pacific why airlines dump fuel.

“Aircraft are designed with the max landing weight lower than the max take off weight. Usually for long haul flights such as this Delta flight to Shanghai, you would take off with a fuel load that puts the airplane above the maximum landing weight, but because you will be burning fuel on route, when you reach the destination there will be less fuel in the tanks and hence the aircraft weight on landing will be lower than requirement,” he says.

“So the situation for long haul usually is that you take off with a lot of gas and if you return to the origin airport or make an early en route diversion before most of the fuel is used up, they have to dump the fuel or the aircraft will be at a heavier weight for landing.”

Chan says there are three main reasons why it would be necessary to dump fuel.

  1. The plane is too heavy for the brakes to stop it in time –”If the plane is heavier with more fuel on board, the brakes may not be sufficient to stop the aircraft before the end of the runway.”
  2. Structural reasons – “A heavier airplane could cause unnecessary damage to the aircraft upon landing.”
  3. Following missed approach procedure – “If we have to go around with a full tank of gas, will the plane be able to climb over obstacles? It doesn’t help if the reason for returning t0 land is, for example, due to an engine failure, which means that on top of the weight issue we’re also running on reduced power.”

A balance of risk

Chan adds that nowadays it is possible to land aircraft at a weight which is above the maximum landing weight, and engineering tables as well as digital applications are available on board to calculate the landing distance required and consequential brake temperatures so that well-managed, overweight landings can be safely carried out, but the decision to do so comes down to “a balance of risk”.

“On a balance of risk, it might be better to dump fuel before landing when it’s for a non-critical emergency; for example if there is a passenger with a non-life threatening medical condition. If the cockpit is on fire, you wouldn’t care about weight. In the balance of risk, you’d just try to land,” he says.

What went wrong with this Delta flight?

“In this situation with the Delta flight, it seems it was either something very, very critical so they will be dumping fuel all the way to touchdown, or it’s just a miscalculation by Air Traffic Control or the pilots as where to dump fuel,” Chan says.

“It’s a big ‘no no’ for dumping fuel essentially near an airport area. Boeing recommends dumping fuel above 5,000ft (as it will vaporise before reaching the ground), and advises not to dump fuel in a holding pattern or fly under an area where fuel has been dumped, to minimise the risk of vapour ingestion.

“Usually what happens is they will close off the airspace, preferably over the water or at high altitude where fuel will vaporise before landing.”

Asked for comment about the reason fuel was dumped on populated areas, a Delta spokesperson said: “We are not able to comment at this time as we are still investigating the details.”

Another recent instance of fuel dumping at LAX

In November 2019, Philippine Airlines flight PR113 returned to land at Los Angeles International Airport after suffering an engine failure on departure, according to the Aviation Safety Network.

The aircraft was also a Boeing 777, though the -300ER variant rather than the -200 variant involved in the Delta fuel dump.

“They returned without dumping fuel and melted all the tires on landing,” first officer Chan says.

Videos of the plane with its faulty engine can be viewed below:

There were no flames showing from the plane when it landed but firefighters were on hand as a precaution, airport spokesman Heath Montgomery said at the time, according to the Associated Press. The fire team did hose down some of the heated plane wheels as a precaution.

Delta offers almost daily flights from Los Angeles to Shanghai Pudong on its own aircraft. Daily flights are available when combined with its partner China Eastern.

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