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Why did Delta jet shower fuel on schoolchildren? Experts call it rare and concerning

Park Avenue Elementary School
A parent leaves Park Avenue Elementary School in Cudahy, Calif., where an LAX-bound airplane dumped fuel on the playground on Jan. 14. Twenty children and 11 adults were treated for minor symptoms, and no one was transported to a hospital.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

How did pilots of a Delta jetliner end up dumping fuel on a playground filled with children in Cudahy?

That is the question many are asking after the Tuesday morning incident that affected Park Avenue Elementary School. More than 40 people — including many children — were treated by medical personnel, but there appear to be no serious injuries.

Emergency workers respond after an LAX-bound plane dumped fuel on a playground at Park Avenue Elementary School on Jan. 14 in Cudahy, Calif.
Emergency workers respond after Delta Flight 89 dumped fuel on a school playground on Jan. 14 in Cudahy, Calif.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

What do we know about what happened?

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Delta Flight 89 had taken off from Los Angeles International Airport with 149 passengers on board and was en route to Shanghai when it turned around and headed back to the L.A. airport. Officials said it had some type of engine issue that required the emergency landing.

According to mapping by The Times, the plane was diverted over Santa Monica Bay and moved through Ventura County, the San Fernando Valley and into Southeast L.A. County before hitting the arrival path to LAX.

It’s unclear whether Cudahy was the only place where fuel was dumped.

delta-path.png
The flight path of a Delta jet that dumped fuel on Cudahy’s Park Avenue Elementary School on Tuesday.
(Matt Stiles / Los Angeles Times)

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How rare are fuel dumps?

Ross Aimer, chief executive officer of Aero Consulting Experts, said fuel dumping is very rare and is used only in case of emergencies or if pilots have to lessen the load of the plane to land.

“Most pilots choose not to dump fuel unless the emergency really dictates it,” Aimer said.

Among the emergencies would be landing gear that is not functioning and would make it hard to control the plane.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that it was investigating. The agency said there are procedures for dumping, adding it should occur at high elevations and away from populated areas.

“The FAA is thoroughly investigating the circumstances behind today’s incident involving a Delta Airlines flight that was returning to Los Angeles International Airport. There are special fuel-dumping procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major U.S. 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,” the agency said in a statement.

When do fuel dumps happen?

When pilots dump fuel, they typically try to dump fuel above 10,000 feet and over water but ideally it should be done at higher elevation because the fuel turns into mist.

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Aimer said that without knowing what Flight 89’s emergency was, the pilot may have been in the final stage of dumping fuel as it was heading toward LAX, resulting in today’s controversial fuel dumping incident.

“I don’t remember anyone dumping fuel over population,” he said.

The Shanghai-bound flight left LAX, looped over the San Fernando Valley and southeastern L.A. County before making an emergency return to the airport.


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