Where is the emergency ?

by | 2021-07-11

When was the last time you had an emergency, a real one?

Everyone will have their own creative interpretation on the matter. A perceived emergency will vary from one individual to another. Experience will bring its own bias. One way or another, an ocean separates a stressful situation where a pilot gets busy and an emergency that requires priority handling.

Here, I mention experience, since a freshly minted pilot may feel that a situation X has become an emergency and an experienced captain would not.

Thankfully, as we shall see further, the vast majority of abnormal and emergency situations are well defined, most of the time…

Many pilots monitor their personal image projected to the outside world. This is a CRM cornerstone. No one wants to look like a clumsy newbie. This is an evidence. Sadly a call for help would at first glance project weakness coming from the “caller”.

As I write these lines, I have the impression that I am dealing with a subject of Paleolithic order! Nonetheless, despite the enormous advances in flight safety afforded by CRM within the industry, it appears that too many pilots under duress completely omit to prevail themselves with valuable resources (the R in CRM) available.

This was a recent observation that caught my attention when I finished the last episode on the excellent podcast « There I was » from AOPA’s (www.aopa.org) Air Safety Institute.

I whole heartily recommend taking in the various monthly segments. Personally, I had not much interest in general for podcast as I had the impression (perception you say?) that most podcasts were on the cheesy side. I have corrected myself quicker than an ILS glide slope intercept from above at the first episode I have listened. 

The excellent series still in monthly production deals with pilots who wind up in difficult situations and live to tell about it. What makes this work so interesting in flight safety matters is the objective and scientific approach the host takes. Best of all is that all cases are totally devoid of judgmental comments.


Further, the analysis provided will most of the time provide a new perspective on issues. Thinking outside the sandbox is always beneficial. 

So after having listened to all episodes available, the observation was that for most of the cases, in the order of 8 out of 10, the pilot did not call an emergency with ATC.

Sometimes, in the heat of the action, the podcasts mention that controllers will promptly make the situation an emergency and initiate all the procedural steps.

ATC services

Within controlled airspace, when an emergency is declared, airspace is « cleared » to permit the concerned aircraft to proceed without any delay for a landing. Air regulation will be subordinated, if necessary, to accommodate the flight. Dense traffic airports will become available (what airport authority would deny an aircraft of any size help ?). ATC will also coordinate CFR (crash fire rescue) crews, ambulance, et al..

When away from the great centres, although traffic and ground help is limited, an emergency call to ATC is capital. This will permit the timely call to search and rescue teams (SAR). Swift arrival of SAR is vital. You are out of range or too low for ATC? Always remember that there is an airliner not so far away and at high altitude that will undoubtedly receive your message on 121.5. They all monitor the frequency.

A relay to ATC will be promptly carried out. Thrust me!

The reluctance to contact services is incomprehensible, even if one figures out that the cause is not worth disturbing those big organizations. Whether you sit behind the 100 horses of a Cessna 150 or between a pair 350’s of a PA-31, same thing. These « big organizations » exist precisely for those unhappy moments. For one thing, should the situation normalize itself, it is always time to cancel the emergency. The worst thing that will happen is the likely report to be filled regarding the issue that required the call.

Unfortunately, as far as human factors are concerned, the instinct of self-esteem will interfere with the necessity of calling an emergency when such an emergency is self-inflicted by an error in judgment.

In defence of those embarrassing moments, human life preservation should always prevail. Errors or non-voluntary noncompliance are an integral part of our imperfect existence. The greatness of a person is measured by the amount of courage required to admit and correct a disagreeable condition.

The formulation

An emergency call must be completed with the most details possible and with precision. Time is of the essence, as one may not get a second chance to complete or correct the transmission. Communication, communication, communication (The C that could be the C in CRM – Sorry I digress):

  • Mayday or Pan Pan (3 times)
  • Call sign (3 times)
  • Position, which always includes altitude 
  • Situation
  • Intention
  • Fuel remaining
  • Souls on board

Certainly, some emergencies will occur when time is not such a luxury that would allow the previous standard message. A simple « Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, ident, situation and standby » will suffice to get the system underway.

Reviewing basics

Mayday and Pan Pan calls have different meanings. Mayday is the distress call where immediate assistance is required. An uncontrollable fire on board is a good example. On the other hand, Pan Pan is an emergency call where the safety of the aircraft (or another) is in jeopardy. This also can apply to a passenger or crew on board. An engine failure on a twin-engined aircraft or a pilot on a two-person crew becoming incapacitated are valid cases.

The use of those two calls are unequivocal and are recognizable anywhere on earth. There exists no ambiguity nor any cultural interpretation, for example, I, a Canadian, overflying a country outside North America. Imagine attempting to explain, in English, an inflight problem developing to a controller whose mother tongue is not English. This will impede if not deny any chance of being understood, never mind getting assistance. For many, and this is fine, English is a procedural language with its own special lexicon to be learned. A pilot explaining that there is an awkward smell in the cabin and that visibility is decreasing, within, and requirement for radar vectors to get closer to an airport will probably delay the proper assistance that ATC is capable of providing.


How does one individual define a fire as opposed to someone who perceives a fire. One can see a blazing inferno, while the other a flicker of a match. A « funny » smell could be nothing more than a mix of over showering of cheap cologne mixed in with a dripping left over from a past meal in the galley oven.

Would it be an error to declare an emergency? Then manage the flight in relation to the event? Where does one draw the line between an objectionable odour and an electrical wiring system consuming itself? When a call is required?

Certainly, experience and judgment help in major ways. The cry for wolf story comes to mind. A competent pilot will refer to the manufacturer procedures and training to take decisions.

Subjective cases

The case of a retractable landing not extending as per the normal checklist on a light twin also is worth attention. For many, including myself, this would not be a big deal mechanically speaking. Fly the airplane, pull out the QRH (quick reference handbook). By the way, forget memory items here, just slowly accomplish the QRH. Anyway no big deal: accomplish the extension item per item, run the normal landing checklist. So why bother with the emergency call, right? There is plenty of runway ahead, you know the system by hearth, The gear is down and locked. The paperwork involved that can be avoided, much like taxes sleeping in the Caribbeans. Passengers would probably not notice, why alarm them with CFR equipment escorting you, right?

Now we have flown into new known risks. Known risk cannot, in good CRM parlance, be avoided or ignored. The landing gear was not safe and something is happening down there. Any professional would put the odds on her/his side. Make the call! Get all the assistance you can get, even if no unhappy conclusion present’s itself.

Flight controls degradation is often (not always) a situation that can be somewhat mastered in flight. Whether it is an unlucky event or the omission or removing an aileron gust lock on the preflight inspection AND omitting the before take-off checklist will not help the absolute necessity of declaring an emergency. The flight situation is sufficiently serious regardless that the flight trajectory is « mastered ». Lives are at stake for whatever reason they got there in the first place. Regardless of the perceived superior capacity to handle flying with the extra stress induced, making the call is imperative.

An event chain, at first glance, improbable, has become very possible. We are not talking about paranoia here. We are merrily ordering all the required resources available to precisely counter those elements of risk not present some few minutes prior…

Far away, far from services?

Now, you are flying in the boonies somewhere in the « Far North ». Your single engine packs it in. There is not much to land on, yet a road appears in the distance, you can only manage to glide ¾ nm (4500 feet) from it to a clearing. Not a pleasant case, but simple enough. Glider pilots, by the way, land this way all the time! It will take perhaps hours for help to reach your landing sight after someone realizes you went missing. Getting close by the road is one thing. Never mind finding you through the forest. Of course, helicopters can be very useful in such circumstance. You did not make the call, but you did file a flight plan, right? 

Making that emergency call while airborne can make a huge difference in finding you in a timely matter.

Sure, once again, There will be paperwork to fill but it is nothing in comparison to being stranded in a damaged aircraft for hours.

A final note on a popular belief called « minimum fuel ». Contrary to this belief, this one is not an emergency call. It only advises ATC that you are running close on fuel. ATC will not prioritize your flight over others. They may help you out for the sake of efficiency, but that is as far as it goes. Better think on heading to your alternate or declare an emergency should you have no alternatives.

So you have not experienced an abnormality or an emergency over the last few years? Chances are that if you fly enough regularly, sooner or later Murphy will get a seat onboard. Sure enough, if you seldom fly, the chances to meet him have increased even more.

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