A Delta Airlines Boeing 777 on approach to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for an emergency landing dumped jet fuel across a densely populated area that included six schools on Monday afternoon, causing minor injuries among some 60 adults and children and prompting a Federal Aviation Administration investigation, CBS Los Angeles reports.
Minutes after takeoff from LAX, the pilot of Delta Flight 89 bound for Shanghai, China with 181 individuals on board radioed air traffic control to declare an emergency over an "engine issue." The airport is at the edge of the Pacific, so while departing flights launch themselves out over the water, all landing flights must line up over the heart of the sprawling Los Angeles County urban grid and cross over several packed-in neighborhoods on final approach.
A plane loaded up with fuel for a long-haul flight like LA-Shanghai will actually exceed its max safe landing weight, which is fine because that extra tonnage will get burned off en route. Unless, of course, there's an emergency five minutes after takeoff. In that situation, pilots can either risk a potentially dangerous landing or dump fuel to lose weight fast. Except in serious emergencies, this is typically done over unpopulated areas at a high altitude to atomize the fuel into the atmosphere before it hits the ground.
Not here—the 777 was about 2,000 feet above the cities of South Gate, Los Angeles, and Inglewood when the pilot opened the release valves. According to the New York Times, that's less than half the altitude Boeing says is necessary to avoid liquid reaching the ground.
Roughly 19 miles east of the airport sits Park Avenue Elementary, the school hardest hit by the fuel Delta Flight 89 dumped mid-flight. It was around noon when students first noticed it seemed to be raining. Twenty children and eleven adults around the facility were hit by the discarded fuel.
"Drops of water were coming down," Justin Guiti, a fifth-grader who attends the school, told CNN. "I thought it was a rainbow, and I looked up, and it was gasoline." Guiti and his classmates were sprayed "all over" by the fuel, some students reporting getting it in their eyes.
The flight landed without further incident. In total, at least 60 individuals across a five-mile path were affected by the fuel dump, suffering skin irritation and breathing problems, though thankfully none had to be hospitalized, according to Sergeant Rudy Perez with the Los Angeles School Police Department.
“There are special fuel-dumping procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major U.S. airport," wrote the Federal Aviation Administration in a statement. "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.”
CBS Los Angeles spoke to a retired United Airlines pilot who questioned the decision to do so over the city versus the Pacific Ocean.
"Number one, I understand this was a simple compressor stall in one of the engines. I don’t blame the pilot for coming back, however, even if you shut that engine down, it’s not a huge emergency,” Captain Ross Aimer told the news station. “He or she could have gone over the water, which we normally do at places like LAX, you’ve got the Pacific Ocean right there.”
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