This morning, I woke up to headlines about spilling coffee in the cockpit (thank you R and Mom) and so of course I had to find out what happened. The case was released yesterday in the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch S2/2019 Special along with a number of other interesting incidents.
The incident in question was on the 6th of February 2019 on a Condor scheduled passenger flight operated by Thomas Cook. The flight was scheduled to fly from Frankfurt, Germany to Cancun, Mexico in an Airbus A330-243. The first officer was flying the plane and the commander was Pilot Monitoring. The flight was over the North Atlantic Ocean, passing Ireland to the west. The flight crew served coffee to the crew which the captain then placed on his tray table as they were approaching a waypoint.
The AAIB incident says
At approximately 1620hrs, the cup was knocked over.
In my house, that’s code for, “I didn’t do it! At least I didn’t mean to do it.”
In any event, someone knocked the coffee cup over, spilling the hot coffee onto the commander’s lap and the centre console, dripping into the commander’s audio control panel (ACP1). They dried the console (and one presumes, his lap) quickly but the damage was already done, ACP1 began to malfunction. The commander soon found he couldn’t receive or transmit although he could hear the transmissions on the first officer’s speaker. The flight crew tried to isolate ACP1 but this couldn’t be done from the cockpit.
In the image above, you can see ACP1 where the two round lights are, to the right of the commander’s sheep-skin covered seat. ACP2 is on the right side of the centre console.
The ACP1 became very hot and the flight crew noticed an electrical burning smell before it failed completely. About twenty minutes later, the first officer’s audio control panel (ACP2) became too hot to touch and one of the buttons started to melt. Smoke began rising from ACP1. That’s when the commander decided they needed to abandon the planned flight. The two flight crew took turns using supplementary oxygen and they diverted to Shannon, Ireland.
By the time they landed at Shannon, the smoke had dissipated although there was a residual burning smell. The local media reported at the time that five people were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation, which seems a bit odd considering the small amount of smoke which never left the cockpit.
Once on the ground, the two panels were removed and confirmed that both had failed. No further damage was found to have been contaminated by the liquid or the resulting electrical short.
There is, of course a cup holder in the Airbus cockpit which the commander could have used. But the cups that Condor use for that route are a bit too big and so, it’s hard to get them in and out of the cup holder. The result, of course, is that flight crew use the small table in front of them instead of struggling with the cup holder. The AAIB has recommended that serving the coffee with a lid secured on the top of the cup could have reduced the amount of hot liquid that spilled. I think sippy cups are a damn good idea.
The panels were replaced and the aircraft continued to Manchester to pick up new crew before continuing to its original destination of Cancun.
Of course, this isn’t the first time such a spill has happened. In fact, I’m told that this is exactly the plot to the 1964 film Fate is the Hunter. Maybe I’ll watch it this weekend and analyse the crash for next week!
Condor has since sent out a notice to all cabin crew that they must use cup lids on all routes and issued a flight crew notice to remind pilots to be careful with liquids. More importantly, they are considering sourcing and supplying “appropriately sized cups for the aircraft’s cup holders” which seems like the obvious action to take.