Any time you have a flight-control problem in a commercial airplane, it's an emergency —John Nance, former military and airline pilot
LOS ANGELES — The pilots of a Delta Air Lines flight from Los Angeles to Minneapolis declared an emergency soon after takeoff Tuesday when they began having trouble controlling their Boeing 757.
Flight 2116 safely returned to Los Angeles International Airport after circling off the Southern California coast for about an hour to burn fuel. There were no reports of injuries among the 152 people on board.
Comments from the pilots to air traffic controllers indicated they were struggling to keep the aircraft flying on a straight line.
Within minutes of takeoff, the crew calmly declared an emergency and an unidentified person in the cockpit explained, "we got a yaw problem, and we're having a little trouble controlling the airplane," according to recording on LiveATC.net, an independent website that monitors and posts communications between pilots and air traffic controllers.
Yaw refers to the left-to-right movement of an aircraft's nose, and controlling it is important to avoid not just the feeling of slipping or sliding but also a more dangerous problem called a Dutch roll — an exaggerated tail-wagging, rocking motion that can lead to a total loss of control.
Pilots said that it's not unusual for a crew to declare an emergency and cut short a flight, but the Delta pilot's comment that he didn't have full command of the plane made Tuesday's incident more serious.
"Any time you have a flight-control problem in a commercial airplane, it's an emergency," said John Nance, a former military and airline pilot.
The plane took off at 8:39 a.m., and the tracking website FlightAware showed it looping over the Pacific Ocean before returning. During that period, the crew told air traffic controllers they wanted time to speak with Delta officials.
"If it was a super emergency, he wouldn't burn down fuel. He'd just come down and bang it on the ground," said Michael Barr, a former pilot and aviation safety instructor at the University of Southern California.
But if the pilots could maintain control, the prudent course was to return and "get it back to maintenance and figure out what it was before taking it any further," Barr said.
Upon touching down shortly after 9:30 a.m., the plane rolled back to a terminal, followed across the airfield by emergency vehicles.
In an emailed statement, Delta called the problem "a potential systems issue" without elaborating. A spokesman, Morgan Durrant, said it was "too soon" to get into more detail and that the airline was focused on rebooking customers on other flights.
Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman. Associated Press Writers John Antczak and Christopher Weber contributed. Airlines Writer David Koenig contributed from Dallas.