Fate is Almost the Hunter: United Airlines Pilot's Spilt Coffee Helps Trigger False Terrorist Alert

A favorite aviation disaster/risk management movie of mine is the 1964 film Fate is the Hunter starring Glenn Ford and Robert Taylor (another is the 1951 film No Highway in the Sky with Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich). Fate is the Hunter is about an investigation into the cause of an airliner crash that is blamed on the pilot, but (spoiler alert!) is eventually traced to a series of improbable events including a cup of coffee spilling, shorting out some aircraft electronics, and sending false information that one of the aircraft engines is on fire. It's a bit more complicated (and sometimes tedious) than that but the movie is worth watching if you are not overly critical, especially concerning the accident investigation itself.

Coincidentally, both Fate is the Hunter and No Highway in the Sky were shown back to back on the Turner Classic Movie channel this past Sunday night. Why this is even mildly interesting is that news articles today like this one in the Wall Street Journal are reporting that United Airlines Flight 940 Monday night from Chicago to Frankfurt landed instead in Toronto.

The reason?

Air turbulence led to the coffee being spilled in the cockpit. As a result, the WSJ says:

"... the spill sparked problems in one radio system, and while pilots were switching to backups they attempted to enter a 'No Radio' code - 7600 - into the plane's transponder to alert air-traffic controllers they were out of radio contact. Instead, the pilot mistakenly entered 7500, the international distress code for hijacking or unlawful interference."

This "hijack" message in turn caused a bit of a stir on the ground for a few minutes until communication from United to the pilots via text messages confirmed that there wasn't a hijacking.

In addition, the WSJ said, the coffee spill seemed to have caused "navigation anomalies" in the Boeing 777 so the crew decided it was better to divert to Toronto instead of flying across the Atlantic with radio and navigation problems.

Passengers were then ferried back to Chicago via another United 777 where the passengers spent the remainder of Monday night; they were then flown to Frankfurt on Tuesday. The coffee-stained 777 was itself flown to Washington, DC for repairs, and put back into service last night.

The WSJ article quoted a Boeing spokesperson as saying that cockpit equipment must pass a spill test, and that the test "must confirm that no liquid will penetrate the equipment whatsoever."

The Boeing spokesperson didn't speculate about why the coffee was apparently able to penetrate the cockpit equipment this time.

I spoke to a couple of friends of mine who are airline pilots this morning and they are more than a bit skeptical of the explanations given, especially in regards to the accidental terrorist alert. One went so far as to say, "How long did it take the pilots to come up with that coffee spill excuse?"

It will be interesting to see what more transpires about this story over the next few days. I would be interested to hear from airline or other pilots about their thoughts on the episode.

I should mention that the WSJ and others also picked up on the Fate is the Hunter link as well.

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