The crew of a Delta Air Lines Inc. flight that experienced engine trouble shortly after taking off from Los Angeles failed to notify air traffic controllers before they dumped fuel over a densely populated area that included several elementary schools, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
While there is no regulation requiring such notice, it’s common practice so that flight controllers can direct the plane to an appropriate area to drop the fuel, the FAA said in an e-mail Wednesday. The discharge from the Delta jet sickened 67 children and adults, although none was hospitalized.
“A review of yesterday’s air traffic control communications shows the Delta Flight 89 crew did not tell air traffic control that they needed to dump fuel,” said the US regulator. “In this emergency situation, the fuel-dumping procedure did not occur at an optimal altitude that would have allowed the fuel to atomize properly.”
Fuel jettisoned higher than 5,000 to 6,000 feet will vaporize before hitting the ground, according to Boeing Co. The altitude of the Delta plane when it dropped the fuel hasn’t been disclosed.
The Boeing 777-200 suffered an engine compressor stall after leaving Los Angeles International for Shanghai, and the pilots notified air traffic control that the aircraft would need to return to the airport. The FAA continues to investigate the incident. Delta said it helped clean up the fuel at the schools, but declined to comment on the FAA statement or any aspect of the probe.
While it’s unclear how serious the emergency on the Delta flight was, pilots have discretion to ignore some FAA rules while faced with a dangerous situation. The crew members told controllers their situation was “not critical,” according to a recording posted by LiveATC.net.
Jetliners dump fuel in an emergency to lower their weight for landing. While the plane was capable of taking off, its weight with a full fuel load would have made it heavier than optimal for landing. Landing at higher weights causes stress on brakes and tires that can trigger fires or other issues.
The Delta plane, which was carrying 149 passengers and 15 crew members, landed safely. The fuel release “was required as part of normal procedure to reach a safe landing weight,” the airline said in a statement late Tuesday.
Delta said it “shares concerns regarding reports of minor injuries to adults and children at schools in the area.”