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What happened with Delta B-777 Air Return Fuel Dump over Los Angeles?

What happened in the cockpit?

The newsmedia’s presentation of Delta’s fuel dump during an emergency return for landing after takeoff from LAX has caused some airline pilots to ask questions. A lot of coverage was presented with few answers to what really matters.

On January 14, Delta Air Lines flight 9 returned for landing after experiencing an engine compressor stall after taking off from LAX airport. The flight was a scheduled flight from Los Angeles to Shanghai, China. During the return for landing at LAX, the 777 apparently dumped fuel over the populated Los Angeles. This was necessary to get the plane down to a safe landing weight after being fully loaded with fuel for the long flight.

When the plane was overflying the City of Cudahy several children and adults were doused in aircraft fuel at an elementary school playground. According to the fire department, “multiple patients had to be assessed” as a result of the fuel exposure.

The Delta 777 fuel dump returning to LAX

A Twitter caption from an eyewitness from the Delta fuel dump over Los Angeles.

Standard procedures and protocol for Engine Failure

An airplane “losing an engine”, or experiencing an engine failure, such as a compressor stall normally would not warrant an immediate landing.

An airliner can safely keep flying with only one of two engines operating.

The procedure would then be to circle over the water west of LAX where there is no terrain or people below. Once in position in the holding area, everything would be worked out, such as stabilizing the emergency situation, dump the fuel, and get ready for and prepare for the approach. The return to the airport and the approach would begin after the fuel dump has been completed.

Procedure for an immediate return for landing in a critical situation

An immediate landing with fuel dump continuing until before touchdown would only be performed if getting down on the ground is so critical that the airplane can crash if such a procedure is not implemented immediately. Examples of such situations would be if you had a cargo or cabin smoke or fire situation on board.

Radio communication between ATC and Delta 777.

Here you can listen to a recording of the radio communication that took place between Delta and ATC during the flight. YouTube/VASAviation

Delta’s compressor stall and air return to LAX with fuel dump

The Flight Path of Delta 9

Delta fuel dump Los Angeles LAX, flight path.
This screenshot from FlightRadar24 shows the flight path of the Delta plane that dumped fuel while flying over Los Angeles for the return to LAX.

Pilot Questions

When the incident happened several of my airline and military pilot friends raised some questions.

Of course, these are all hypothetical questions, yet common sense questions in the minds of highly trained airline pilots:

  • The Delta pilot stated that the problem was a compressor stall and that “the situation was under control”. Why were the pilots in such a rush to get back to LAX? Why did they have to dump fuel over Los Angeles? Furthermore, the pilot never stated to ATC that fuel dumping was taking place. Why?
  • Why were the pilots in such a rush to land if a compressor stall was the only problem? The pilots know their plane is perfectly capable of safely flying with one engine out.
  • If there was more to the emergency than reported by the media, then what was it? A compressor stall with a severed fuel line, or a fuel leak, adding additional fuel escaping from the airplane? The procedure for a compressor stall initially calls for retarding the throttles but not to shut down the engine. If there was also a fuel leak, then, of course, the fuel pumps still running would be moving a lot of fuel out of the tanks.
  • Why did the pilots start the fuel dump without communicating their intentions to ATC?
  • Why did the pilot tell ATC everything was under control, indicating that urgency or an immediate landing really wasn’t necessary?
delta 777 lax fueldump flight path
The flight path of the Delta 89 that dumped fuel over Los Angeles.

Featured Image: The Boeing 777 during fuel dump upon its return to LAX Airport. Photo: Pedro Jimenez, for captainjetson.com.

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