Dangerous Cockpit Coffee Break Lands Airline Pilots in Hot Water

Perhaps don't balance a hot cup of coffee over critical flight controls when flying at 37,000 feet.

Pilots have a demanding job, and are expected to take regular breaks to ensure their performance when it counts. However, two pilots for Indian airline SpiceJet were grounded recently after taking a load off in the cockpit in a dangerous fashion.

According to the Times of India, two pilots for the budget airline were photographed in the cockpit enjoying a relaxing coffee break. Concerningly, the image—which appears to have been taken by one of the pilots themselves—showed a cup of coffee precariously balancing on the fuel cutoff levers next to the throttle controls. With no lid or spill protection in place, the slightest error could have dunked hot coffee all over the levers and buttons crucial to controlling the aircraft. The pilots also appeared to have left a gujiya sitting on the controls, a pastry typically enjoyed as part of the Holi festival in India.

The photograph was taken while the aircraft was cruising at 37,000 ft at a speed of Mach 0.79. That equates to around 521 mph at that altitude, depending on atmospheric conditions. Once the photo went viral on social media, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation requested that SpiceJet identify the crewmembers and take action. The unidentified pilots were stood down from flying duties the next day.

“Both pilots have been off-rostered pending an inquiry,” read a SpiceJet in a statement on the matter. “SpiceJet has a strict policy for consumption of food inside the cockpit which is adhered by all flight crew. Appropriate disciplinary action will be taken upon completion of the investigation.”

Based on the photo had the coffee fallen backwards, it could have damaged the controls on the plane’s fire protection panel. Alternatively, falling forwards, it could have easily spilled into the throttle controls themselves, the fuel cutoffs, or the stabilizer trim controls. Liquid ingress into the controls could easily lead to difficulty controlling the aircraft, with potentially dire consequences.

Cockpit spills have caused serious safety issues for passenger airlines before. Incidents include a Boeing 777 making an emergency landing in 2011, and Airbus A350s that have suffered engine shutdowns in recent years. Manufacturers are working to make their cockpit controls as spill-proof as possible, but proper cockpit practice goes a long way to avoiding the issue in the first place.

This time, the pilots seemingly didn’t spill anything due to the sloppy protocol on their coffee break. However, passengers and aviation authorities alike have a right to expect better practice from those charged with flying commercial airliners. This incident should serve as a healthy warning over the dangers of spills in the cockpit.

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