A Spilled Cup of Coffee Caused a Terrifying Emergency Plane Landing

Four crew members and one passenger had to be rushed to a nearby hospital to receive treatment for smoke inhalation.
coffee service on plane

"Why are pilots permitted to drink in the cockpit?" someone posted on question-and-answer website Quora a couple of months ago. "Could a spill be catastrophic to the electronics?"

A pilot responded to point out that being able to stay hydrated is crucial during a long flight, and explaining that both Boeing and Airbus aircraft have "reasonably secure" cup holders for coffee cups. "As for damaging the electronics, what do you think we do with? Have play fights at 33,000 [feet]," a self-described flight instructor added. "No, in the cruise, no turbulence, [we] gently enjoy our tea, coffee or whatever."


But according to a recent accident report—and despite those special cupholders—pilots still make the most inopportune messes. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) revealed that a Condor flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Cancun, Mexico had to be diverted to the Shannon (Ireland) Airport because one of the pilots spilled his coffee.

The Guardian reports that the 49-year-old Captain placed his cup on a fold-out tray table inside the Airbus A330 cockpit, where it was "vulnerable to being knocked over." After he sloshed hot coffee all over the audio control panel, it started to smoke and smelled like, you know, an impending electrical fire.

According to a February report from TheJournal.ie, the pilots had to issue a Mayday distress signal and make a U-turn back to the Shannon Airport. A number of ambulances were dispatched to the airport, and four crew members and one passenger were taken to a nearby hospital to receive treatment for smoke inhalation. The other 330-plus passengers stayed in hotels overnight, as fire crews and Condor's engineers worked to inspect and repair the plane.

"We have comprehensively investigated this incident and reviewed the procedures of liquids in the cockpit,"a Condor spokesperson said on Thursday. "Our crews were reminded of [the need for] 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.”


FlightGlobal says that Condor has also changed its cockpit coffee procedures to "ensure cup lids were provided on all routes," and it has also asked for more "appropriately sized" cups to fit in those built-in cup holders.

In April 2015, the Serbian Civil Aviation Directorate determined that a co-pilot's coffee spill caused a plane carrying Serbia's then-president Tomislav Nikolić to plummet more than a mile. Nikolić and 10 other passengers were inside the Falcon 50 aircraft, heading from Belgrade to Rome for a meeting with Pope Francis.

Co-pilot Bojan Zoric tried to wipe up his mess, and he also accidentally turned the plane's auto-pilot off and "activated the emergency slot extension," which caused one of the Falcon's engines to shut down. The plane lost a lot of altitude, fast, before the pilots got it under control.

"These 60 seconds felt like an eternity," Stanislava Pak, one of Nikolić's advisors, said at the time. "We were falling like a rock. Our things were flying all over the cabin. I fell on my colleague, and then grabbed his hand. It was the most terrifying moment."

And in 2011, a United Airlines pilot's coffee spill caused him to accidentally send a 7500 code, which is the signal for a hijacked aircraft. The flight, which was traveling from Chicago to Frankfurt, was diverted to Toronto (and that pilot probably had a lot of uncomfortable explaining to do).

So, uh, how hard would it be for the airlines to just buy a bunch of spill-proof mugs? We'd even donate a couple of bucks to that Kickstarter.