Flight Turned Back After Pilot Spilled Coffee Causing Control Panel to Melt and Smoke

Illustration for article titled Flight Turned Back After Pilot Spilled Coffee Causing Control Panel to Melt and Smoke
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An airplane flying across the Atlantic Ocean had to reroute after a pilot spilled his coffee in the cockpit and damaged the audio control panel.

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The Condor-run Airbus A330-243 was flying 326 passengers from Frankfurt, Germany, to Cancun, Mexico, when cabin crew gave the pilot a coffee with no lid, according to a report from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB).

Airbus reportedly recommends pilots use provided cup holders for beverages, but the AAIB investigation found that the Condor pilot, who had 13,135 hours of flying experience, put his coffee cup on a tray table. The cup did not stay in place, and the coffee spilled onto the pilot’s lap and on the audio control panels.

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An image from the AAIB report shows the two audio control panels (ACP) that were damaged in the spill
An image from the AAIB report shows the two audio control panels (ACP) that were damaged in the spill
Screenshot: Air Accidents Investigation Branch

The spill “resulted in immediate malfunction.” And about 40 minutes after the spill, one audio control “unit became very hot and failed and there was an electrical burning smell in the cockpit,” according to the report.

About 20 minutes later the audio control unit on the co-pilot side “became hot enough to start melting one of its buttons, and failed” and a “small amount of smoke was observed coming from” the control unit that had failed first.

At that point, the pilot made the decision to divert the flight to Ireland. The flight crew used supplementary oxygen for the rest of the flight, and the pilots had difficulty sending or receiving transmissions due to the audio control panels being damaged.

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“Flight DE2116 from Frankfurt to Cancun on February 6, 2019, diverted to Shannon airport as a precautionary measure due to a minor amount of smoke in the cockpit after a liquid spillage,” a Condor spokesperson told Gizmodo, in a statement. “After the aircraft was fully inspected and repaired by our team of engineers, the flight continued via Manchester due to the legal operating hours of the crew. As safety is always our top priority, we have comprehensively investigated this incident and reviewed the procedures of liquids in the cockpit.”

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The spokesperson continued, “Our crews were reminded of careful handling as well as to use appropriate containers for their water or coffee.”

Former senior reporter at Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

The spill “resulted in immediate malfunction.”

This is the exact plot of the 1964 film Fate Is The Hunter. When the coffee spills on the center console it causes a false fire alarm in one engine, which the pilot shuts down. When the other engine actually fails, the pilot didn’t know that first engine was really ok. He attempts a forced landing on a beach which results in a catastrophic crash killing all aboard.

NB: this film was based on a book of the same name by Ernest K. Gann, a memoir of Gann’s extensive flying career, but the film bore no relation to it. He had his name removed from the credits but later regretted it; the movie ran interminably on TV, and he missed out on the royalties.