Plane Forced to Turn Around Midway Across Atlantic After Pilot Spills Coffee on Control Panel, Button Melts

A transatlantic passenger flight had to turn around midway over the ocean when a pilot spilled his hot coffee over the plane's controls.

The latest monthly bulletin from the U.K.'s Air Accidents Investigation Branch details the incident, which took place in February this year and involved a Condor Airlines flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Cancun, Mexico.

Most of the coffee spilled onto the commander's lap, but a small amount went on the controls, causing an "immediate malfunction." Smoke began to appear along with a burning electrical smell and the area became "hot enough to start melting one of its buttons."

The two pilots diverted the plane back towards Ireland and headed to Shannon Airport without further incident on the flight, which was carrying 11 crew and 326 passengers. There were no injuries.

"During the diversion, the flight crew alternately used supplementary oxygen, with one pilot on oxygen at all times," the bulletin stated.

"The various ACP [audio control panel] failures resulted in communication difficulties. The commander was not able to receive or transmit and could only hear transmissions through the co-pilot's speaker. There was no interphone between the pilots.

"The smoke stopped and though there was a residual burning smell, the fumes did not result in injuries to anyone on board."

According to the bulletin, the manufacturer of the aircraft—in this case, an Airbus A330-243—recommends that pilots use the cup holder.

But the size of the cups used by the flight operator "made it more difficult to take cups in and out of the cup holder than larger cups that have a bigger area at the top of the cup holder to grasp."

"This incompatibility generally discouraged use of the cup holder, despite the policy. In the A330, flight crew were provided with a table in front of them, and it was a natural place to put a drink momentarily," the bulletin said.

"However, objects here are vulnerable to being knocked over because it is a fold out table in a small space. It is also a convenient place to put other things that are likely to be moved during flight, such as the pilot's log.

"A lid properly secured on the top of the cup may have reduced the amount of liquid spilled on the center console."

A Condor spokeswoman told Newsweek: "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.

"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.

"We have comprehensively investigated this incident and reviewed the procedures of liquids in the cockpit. Our crews were reminded of a careful handling as well as to use appropriate containers for their water or coffee. We apologize for any inconveniences the diversion might have caused to our guests."

The bulletin noted that the flight operator had changed its procedure so that "cup lids are provided for flights on all routes and reminded cabin crew of the requirement to use them."

Moreover, they "issued a flight crew notice reminding pilots to be careful with liquids. The operator raised an action to source and supply appropriately sized cups for the aircraft's cup holders."

pilot spills coffee flight Atlantic melted buttons
Audio Control Panel 1 and Audio Control Panel 2, which both malfunctioned after a pilot spilled his coffee during a flight from Germany to Mexico. AAIB

This article was updated to include a Condor Airlines statement.