The practice of dumping excess fuel from aircraft


Qantas has had some bad press lately, having to abort several flights due to engine or other malfunctions. The most recent was when a flight to Buenos Aires from Sydney returned to Sydney yesterday after smoke was detected in the cockpit. A few days earlier a Qantas flight from Perth to Melbourne returned to Perth not long after take off due to engine trouble. In all 4 Qantas flights have been unable to reach their destination in less than 2 weeks.

In the overall scheme of things, this is of concern, but what it got me thinking about was that every time a plane gets turned back to due a malfunction, they dump most of their fuel because it would be dangerous to try to land a plane ‘heavy’ with aviation fuel, especially when there are already technical problems with the flight. Obviously the fuel itself adds weight and restricts low altitude manoeverability, but also represents a major fire/explosion risk.

With the price of fuel, I’m sure that airlines take as much as required to cover contingency plans and civil aviation law will also dictate rules around this. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about how much fuel is dumped from aircraft around the world on a daily basis and what the consequences might be.

According to an enlightening article in Wikipedia  only large aircraft, fitted with fuel dumping systems have the ability to dump fuel. It is not universal. It also says that they generally dump fuel at high altitude which means that most of it dissipates before it hits the ground.

So is it safe? The Institute for Southern Studies found that fuel dumping was behind crop damage in Tennessee. They say that most of the fuel vaporizes and doesn’t reach the ground, yet the net is full of news stories about problems caused by fuel dumping. Of course it could be considered far less risky than an explosion on impact and in my research, there was far more evidence of massive losses of oil at sea from ships.

I found it really difficult to get any sort of statistic of how many fuel dumps happen around the world daily, I know its a lot because of the number of PA’s I have heard from the flight deck on my travels. I’d be interested if anyone has any statistics on this. One thing I do note is that in New Zealand we don’t have problems like acid rain and we have very low flight density. Yes, I do understand that most acid rain comes from heavy industrial pollution.

Anyway, just something I’ve been thinking about. Yes, I would still fly Qantas without hesitation.

A Qantas 380 Dumping Fuel in Flight