A mist of fuel dumped by an airliner with an engine problem as it made an emergency return to Los Angeles International Airport fell on several schools Tuesday, causing minor skin and lung irritation to 56 children and adults, officials said.
The fuel sprayed out of the plane in two lines and the strong-smelling vapor descended at midday in the city of Cudahy and nearby parts of Los Angeles County, about 21km (13 miles) east of the airport.
The vapor fell on five elementary schools, but all injuries were minor and no one was taken to hospitals, Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Sky Cornell said. It didn’t force any evacuations.
“That’s a great sign,” Cornell said.
All the fuel evaporated very quickly and nothing flammable remained in the air or on the ground, he said.
People were treated with soap and water, Fire Inspector Henry Narvaez said.
Shortly after take-off, Delta Air Lines Flight 89 to Shanghai “experienced an engine issue requiring the aircraft to return quickly to LAX. The aircraft landed safely after release of fuel, which was required as part of normal procedure to reach a safe landing weight,” the company said in a statement. The airline did not release details about the engine problem.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it was investigating.
“There are special fuel-dumping procedures for aircraft operating into and out of any major US airport,” the FAA said in a statement.
“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 FlightAware website’s flight track showed the jet took off over the ocean and made an immediate right turn toward land and circled back over Southern California to approach the airport from the east.
Delta said it was in touch with the airport and Fire Department and shared “concerns regarding reported minor injuries to adults and children”.
The Los Angeles Unified School District said its Park Avenue Elementary campus in Cudahy and 93rd Street Elementary had “direct impacts from the fuel”.
Cornell said 31 children and adults were affected at Park Avenue, and 12 at 93rd Street. The rest of those affected were at other schools.
The school district said in a statement that paramedics were immediately called to treat anyone complaining of “skin irritation or breathing problems” and that its environmental health and safety office also responded.
Park Avenue sixth-grader Diego Martinez said he and his classmates were outside for physical education class when they saw the plane flying low overhead. “It was very close,” he said. Shortly afterward, the air filled with the pungent odour of fuel. “It was very strong, the odour,” the 12-year-old said. Diego wasn’t doused but some of his friends complained that their skin was itching.
Ross Aimer, the chief executive officer of Aero Consulting Experts, said fuel dumping was very rare and was only used in case of emergencies or if pilots have to reach a safe landing weight, as was the case in Tuesday’s incident.
“Most pilots choose not to dump fuel unless the emergency really dictates it,” Aimer said.
A possible emergency would be non-functioning landing gear that would otherwise make it difficult to control the plane.
When pilots dump fuel, they typically try to do it at above 10,000 feet and over water, but ideally it should be done at higher elevation because then the fuel turns into mist and it’s away from populated areas.
Aimer said that without knowing what Flight 89’s emergency was, the pilot may have been in the final stage of dumping fuel as the plane was heading toward LAX. He said there is also a good chance the pilot made an error.
“I don’t remember anyone dumping fuel over population,” he said.