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It's Not Yet Clear Why Pilots Dumped Fuel on Schoolkids

Lots of questions for Delta after plane making emergency landing dumps fuel over school
By Evann Gastaldo,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 15, 2020 4:07 PM CST
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Student Marianna Torres, 11, center, cries as she recounts her exposure to fuel fumes as children evacuate the Park Avenue Elementary school in Cudahy, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020.   (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
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(Newser) – Delta Flight 89 experienced engine trouble shortly after taking off from Los Angeles International Airport en route to China, forcing it to turn around and make an emergency landing back at LAX—after first dumping fuel on the city of Cudahy, where dozens of children were exposed to it while playing on a school playground. Now, city officials want answers, the Los Angeles Times reports. "I am calling for a full federal investigation into the matter and expect full accountability from responsible parties," a city councilman says. While dozens of people, including some adults, were treated by paramedics, no serious injuries were reported. But some experts are also wondering what went wrong, noting fuel dumps are rare and, when they do occur, federal rules require them to take place over unpopulated areas, such as a body of water.

"There are special fuel-dumping procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major US airport," says the FAA, which is investigating. "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 FAA says the pilots did not notify air traffic controllers of the need to dump fuel, USA Today reports. The Boeing 777 involved in this incident made it to 8,000 feet, but was at an altitude of just 2,300 feet when the fuel was released over an elementary school. Still, a former NTSB official says it's too early to judge: "A 777 flying nonstop to Shanghai is absolutely loaded with fuel. So loaded that to land right away after takeoff poses a significant danger." All Delta has said so far is that the engine issue required pilots to "return quickly" to LAX, and that they were forced to get the plane's weight down. Per a radio call obtained by the Times, the pilots said they were dealing with an "engine compressor stall." (Read more Delta Air Lines stories.)

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