‘It was not an easy call’: Here’s why that Delta jet dumped fuel over schools near Los Angeles

The Delta pilots who bombarded elementary school playgrounds with jet fuel before making an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport probably did what needed to be done to ensure the safety of the passengers and crew, a former National Transportation Safety Board official said Wednesday.

Delta made national news Tuesday when pilots of Flight 89 bound for Shanghai dumped the fuel before making a successful emergency landing moments after takeoff. Delta said the twin-engine Boeing 777 had experienced engine problems.

Scores of people on the ground, including students at multiple elementary schools, were treated for eye and skin irritation, Los Angeles County fire officials said. Decontamination stations were set up, but no injuries required hospitalization, authorities said.

“A 777 flying nonstop to Shanghai is absolutely loaded with fuel,” said Peter Goelz, a former NTSB managing director. “So loaded that to land right away after takeoff poses a significant danger.”

Goelz said protocols normally call for fuel to be dumped over water and/or at an altitude of 10,000 feet so it can disperse and minimize environmental damage. But the rules change for a very heavy plane urgently needing to get back on the ground, he said.

An unidentified girl covers her mouth as she leaves with a relative the Park Avenue Elementary school in Cudahy, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. (Photo: Damian Dovarganes, AP)

Goelz said that every pilot knows the story of Swissair Flight 111, a Geneva-bound MD-11 out of New York that plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia on Sept. 2, 1998. None of the 229 people aboard survived. The crew had called in an emergency but was flying away from an airport so it could dump fuel over water when it crashed.

“Pilots know that when you have a problem that threatens the aircraft and you have to get rid of fuel, you get rid of it fast,” he said. “You don’t want things like this (contamination) to happen, but the alternative is too dire.”

The FAA said it was investigating the fuel dump, noting that 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.”

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Delta said the unexplained engine issue required the plane 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.

The airline said it was in touch with the airport and fire officials and expressed concern over “minor injuries” to adults and children.

The smell of jet fuel wafted through some neighborhoods.

Los Angeles Unified School Board Vice President Jackie Goldberg was “shocked and angered” at the fuel dump over the Park Avenue Elementary School playground in Cudahy and promised to closely monitor the investigation.

“I am sorry our school community had to go through this very scary incident today,” Goldberg said.

Goelz was willing to give the pilots the benefit of the doubt, at least for now.

“Right off the bat, I would not be criticizing the crew until I have more information,” he said. “It was not an easy call.”

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