On July 25, 2022, Delta Air Lines Flight 9923, a 10-hour flight from New York (JFK) to Accra, Ghana (ACC) experienced an imbalance in the fuel levels in the wing tanks that forced it to turn around mid Atlantic and return to JFK.  I have seen no explanation of the cause of the imbalance.

N195DN, a 767-300ER was the aircraft involved in this incident. Photo: Pieter van Marion, CC BY-SA 2.0

This is the flight track of DL9923 provided by Flight Aware.

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A YouTube star, Xiaoma, whose real name is Arieh Smith, was aboard and provided a first-hand account of the situation.

According to Smith, two hours out of New York a pilot came into the cabin to look out of windows at the right wing.  That was the passenger’s first clue of potential trouble.  30 minutes later, the captain executed a 180º right turn and announced that the flight was returning to JFK because of a “fuel problem.”  Smith reported that the passengers thought they were going to run out of fuel and were pretty tense on the 2.5 hour return to JFK.  He even made a farewell video onboard.

To make matters worse, as you can see from the Flight Aware radar track above, thunderstorms were all around New York City.  Because the crew wanted to land asap, they declared an emergency to get priority landing clearance.  Their flight path was right through the storms.  The approach was no doubt a bumpy one.  That added to the anxiety the passengers were already feeling.

The landing was normal except that fire trucks and ambulances lined the runway and followed the plane to the gate. Passengers disembarked normally.  Smith’s video shows him stopping to talk with the crew on the flight deck.  The captain was very accommodating and explained why the flight turned around.

Interestingly, Smith reported that as the flight was nearing New York passengers began receiving emails from Delta notifying them that they had received complimentary meal vouchers and apologizing for the inconvenience on the flight.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been on two flights that had to return to land. One involved a flight out of Detroit (DTW) on a Delta ERJ 145 about 25 years ago.  There was a loud bump during the takeoff roll.  Once we were airborne, the captain announced that we might have blown a tire and would return to DTW.  We flew around for a while (in order to burn fuel so as not to exceed the maximum landing weight for the aircraft I assume).

We flew low and slow over DTW with the landing gear extended so the tower could get a look at the plane and gear with binoculars.  The pilot said the visual inspection showed nothing unusual but was inconclusive.  I could see that the runway we were to land on was lined with emergency vehicles.  Surprisingly, that was more reassuring than frightening.  The other reassuring part was I was sitting by the window in the exit row.  In the event of an emergency evacuation, if anybody was going to get off the plane, I’d be the first.

The landing was normal.  Nevertheless, a long line of fire trucks and ambulances followed our little commuter jet to the gate.

I mentioned the other incident before.  It happened at night over Lake Michigan returning to Indianapolis from a Civil Air Patrol mission to Chicago.  I was flying right seat in a Cessna 172.  We took off from Palwaukee Airport on the northside of Chicago.  After being over the lake for a few minutes, we lost all cockpit lighting.  We returned to Palwaukee and landed without any problem.  On the ramp we could see that the master switch was not properly engaged.  That’s the only time I’ve seen that happen.

Once more we took off for home.  That’s when a bad night took a turn for the better. Air Traffic Control changed our flight plan and sent us directly over Chicago O’hare International (ORD) at 3,500′ msl.  The night was cold and clear.  We had a great view of one of the busiest airports in the world.

Comparing the two incidents, I would much rather be a pilot than a passenger when an emergency happens.

Have you been on a flight that experienced an issue that caused the plane to return or divert to another airport?