A Delta Air Lines flight crew did not notify air traffic control Tuesday before dumping jet fuel over a portion of Los Angeles County that included several schools where children were playing outside, according to federal officials.
Delta flight 89 was on its way from Los Angeles to Shanghai when it needed to turn around due to mechanical issues. On its way back to the airport, the plane released jet fuel at a low altitude to lighten its load, causing minor injuries to dozens of students and staff who were outside as it flew overhead.
“Air crews will typically notify air traffic control of an emergency and indicate they need to dump fuel,” the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday of the procedure airplanes sometimes use to reach a safe landing weight. “Air traffic controllers will then direct the plane to the appropriate fuel-dumping area.”
But a review of communications with air traffic controllers revealed that the airline crew “did not tell air traffic control that they needed to dump fuel,” according to the FAA.
“We have an emergency at this time. We need to return to LAX for [an] engine compressor stall,” the pilot can be heard saying in the recording.
A controller asks whether the pilot needs to immediately return to the airport or to “hold to burn fuel.” The pilot replies that he’s “got it back under control” and will turn back around to the airport.
“OK, so you don’t need to hold to dump fuel or anything like that?” the controller asks the pilot, who responds: “Negative.”
A Delta spokesperson told HuffPost on Wednesday that an investigation into the incident is ongoing. The airline did not respond to questions about why the pilot did not notify air traffic control before releasing the fuel.
Los Angeles County Fire and Los Angeles City Fire officials said paramedics treated nearly 60 children and adults for skin irritation or breathing problems at Park Avenue Elementary School, Tweedy Elementary School, Graham Elementary School, San Gabriel Elementary School, 93rd St. Elementary School and Jordan High School after the plane released its fuel in southeastern Los Angeles County. None of the patients needed to be transported to a hospital, and there were no evacuation orders.
The FAA is continuing to investigate the circumstances behind the incident.
“There are special emergency fuel-dumping procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major U.S. airport,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. “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.”
In the instance of Delta flight 89, the fuel-dumping “did not occur at an optimal altitude that would have allowed the fuel to atomize properly,” the FAA said.