There is a general reluctance to declare an emergency by pilots who believe it is either "less than manly" or will lead to a mountain of paperwork and unforeseen costs. (See The Right Stuff, below.) Well I've declared an emergency 18 times in the last 34 years and have yet to receive a bill and the only paperwork I've ever had to fill out was a request for a few paragraphs, in my own words, in accordance with 14 CFR 91.3.

— James Albright






While I was flying Boeing 707's for the Air Force in Hawaii we had a pilot land at Honolulu International with a flap failure. The pilot considered but did not declare an emergency. At the last minute, the tower required he land short of an intersection — this was years before LAHSO was invented — or go around for what was sure to be 30 minutes of vectoring. He elected to land and cooked the brakes to the point all eight main gear wheels exploded and they nearly lost the airplane. They had to evacuate on the parallel taxiway, snarling airline traffic for hours. Had he declared an emergency none of that would have happened.

If you think the safety of your airplane is in danger unless you are guaranteed everything you need from the rest of the world, you need to declare an emergency. And do so using that word: "I am declaring an emergency." Air traffic control should understand. If they don't, try this: "If you do not approve this, people will die." Yes, you need to be blunt. See the case of Avianca 52 for a case where the pilots did everything except use that magic word. 73 people died who would have lived had the pilots been more forceful.

What about the term "minimum fuel?" It doesn't carry much weight but it is a tool at your disposal.

What about your passengers? Every time my airplane was met with the fire trucks and even the times we had to evacuate the aircraft on the runway, the passengers thanked me for taking care of them. I've had this experience with the CEOs of two major companies. Your passengers will thank you.

You get ample opportunity to practice this in a simulator and you ought to have the flow of the declaration down pat. Why? Because in a real situation having this articulation down will save you time, communicate your needs, and will improve the support you get. In other words, it gets you onto the ground sooner and safer. So here's mine: "MAY DAY, MAY DAY, MAY DAY, [CALL SIGN], declaring an emergency, [a brief statement of the problem and your immediate request], [___ souls on board, ____ hours fuel], we will get back with you with details, keep an eye on us." For example: "November 7700 declaring an emergency, left engine on fire, request vectors around the airport for an immediate landing, 10 souls on board, 4 hours fuel, we will get back to you with details, keep an eye on us."

Once you've declared an emergency, remember you are the most important aircraft flying and the priority shown you should reflect that. Unnecessary questions, frequency changes, or improper runway assignments should be avoided. There are other considerations.

1 — What is an emergency?

2 — Declaring an emergency

3 — The regulations

4 — "The Right Stuff" (Really?)

5 — Recent examples



What is an emergency?

Emergency-emergence(y). This is the sudden manifestation from somewhere unknown of some previously unknown phenomenon (from the Greekphainesthai, to "shine forth"). This is the reappearance of the eternal dragon, from its eternal cavern, from its now-disrupted slumber. This is the underworld, with its monsters rising from the depths. How do we prepare for an emergency, when we do not know what has emerged, or from where? How do we prepare for catastrophe, when we do not know what to expect, or how to act? We turn from our minds, so to speak-too slow, too ponderous-to our bodies. Our bodies react much faster than our minds.

Source: Peterson, p. 268

The clinical psychologist's definition is as good as any, but let's put an aviator's spin on this. An emergency is in progress when you are unable to resolve a situation unless everyone you need help from offer that help and everyone in your way gets out of your way.

"May Day" or "Pan, Pan"

The following applies outside the United States. As of 2016 these terms carry no meaning in the U.S. but I suspect that will change.

The following signals, used either together or separately, mean that grave and imminent danger threatens, and immediate assistance is requested:

  1. a signal made by radiotelegraphy or by any other signalling method consisting of the group SOS (...———... in the Morse Code);
  2. a radiotelephony distress signal consisting of the spoken word MAYDAY;
  3. a distress message sent via data link which transmits the intent of the word MAYDAY;
  4. rockets or shells throwing red lights, fired one at a time at short intervals;
  5. a parachute flare showing a red light.

Source: ICAO Annex 2, App 1, ¶1.1

The spoken word "Emergency" may or may not have the intended effect when outside the United States. If you want to be sure, "May Day" is what you need to say.

The following signals, used either together or separately, mean that an aircraft has a very urgent message to transmit concerning the safety of a ship, aircraft or other vehicle, or of some person on board or within sight:

  1. a signal made by radiotelegraphy or by any other signalling method consisting of the group XXX;
  2. a radiotelephony urgency signal consisting of the spoken words PAN, PAN;
  3. an urgency message sent via data link which transmits the intent of the words PAN, PAN.

Source: ICAO Annex 2, App 1, ¶1.2.2

The term "Pan, Pan" is equivalent to saying "Everyone else be quiet, I need the frequency because I've got a problem." There is no equivalent in the United States other than to say something like, "Break, break, I have an urgent message."

Call Sign

The point here is to communicate your identity to the air traffic controller as efficiently as possible. This isn't as easy as it may seem.

  • Internationally.
    • Well Known Call Signs — If you have a filed call sign, the controller should have a three character identifier followed by the call sign itself.
    • (The call sign and identifier are found in FAA Order JO 7340.2F, Contractions.) For example, American Airlines Flight 201 would appear on the scope as "AAL201" — easy enough. In the case of a well known call sign, this is what you should use.

    • Lesser Known Call Signs — Where this becomes a problem is when you are overseas with a call sign of less fame. A notable problem is for a management company like Executive Jet Management, where the three character identifier is "EJM" but the spoken call sign is "Jet Speed." In many parts of the world this can cause confusion and rather than say "Jet Speed One Two Three," you should say "Echo Juliet Mike One Two Three."
    • Call Sign is Registration Number — Technically, under ICAO rules, you are allowed to prefix your registration number with the aircraft type in a spoken call sign, "Falcon November One Two Three," for example. But that isn't what the controller is expecting outside of the United States. You are better off communicating as they expect, "November One Two Three" will get your identity across with less confusion.
  • United States Domestic
    • Well Known Call Signs — Within U.S. domestic airspace the rule of thumb is to use your spoken call sign ("American One Two Three") if you think the local controller knows it.
    • Lesser Known Call Signs — A smaller company's call sign may be well known where they frequently fly ("John Deere One Two Three") but may be unheard of in another part of the country and they should use the three letter identifier instead ("Juliet Delta Charlie One Two Three").
    • Call Sign is Registration Number — It is common practice in the United States for a November-registered aircraft to substitute the aircraft type for the "November" character. "Citation One Two Three" would be an acceptable substitute for "November One Two Three."

No matter where you are, the bottom line is you want to communicate your identity instantly, avoiding the "say again" routine when you are in a time critical situation.


Declaring an emergency

n the United States, the controller expects the word "Emergency" and the phrase "May Day" is not officially recognized. This confusion has caused serious problems before, see: Avianca 52. The U.S. system has become more sensitive to this issue:

Pilot Controller Glossary

  • EMERGENCY− A distress or an urgency condition.

Source: Pilot/Controller Glossary

  • An emergency can be either a DISTRESS or URGENCY condition, as defined in the Pilot/Controller Glossary.
  • NOTE − A pilot who encounters a DISTRESS condition may declare an emergency by beginning the initial communication with the word MAYDAY, preferably repeated three times. For an URGENCY condition, the word PAN-PAN may be used in the same manner.

  • If the words MAYDAY or PAN-PAN are not used, and there is doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, handle it as though it is an emergency.
  • Consider an aircraft emergency exists and inform the appropriate control facility when . . . an emergency is declared by any of the following:
    • The pilot.
    • Facility personnel.
    • Officials responsible for the operation of the aircraft.

Source: Air Traffic Organization Policy, ¶5-1-1.

This policy is aimed at air traffic control but gives the pilot insight on the total thought process that you may need to know. For example, I've heard of a crew that reported a flap problem but said no when asked if they wished to declare an emergency. The ATC controller declared an emergency on their behalf, out of an abundance of caution, and the aircraft was met with fire trucks. Now this in itself is not a problem. But now the crew should make a written record of the event, per 14 CFR 91.3, below. Furthermore, the crew was then compelled to seek documented maintenance to resolve the situation.

A Brief Statement of the Problem / Your Request

As long as you have the microphone keyed, give the controller a very brief description of the problem and what you need at the moment. If you get this out of the way now, you will avoid repeated requests from the controller who is trying to check three items off from the very top of his or her task list:

Start assistance as soon as enough information has been obtained upon which to act. Information requirements will vary, depending on the existing situation. Minimum required information for inflight emergencies is:

  1. Aircraft identification and type.
  2. Nature of the emergency.
  3. Pilot’s desires.

Source: FAA Order J7110.65V, §2, ¶10-2-1.a.1.

Nature of the Emergency

This gives the controller an idea of what needs to happen next. "We've got an engine on fire" tells the controller you are dealing with a problem, don't have time to chat, and perhaps he or she should prepare the pattern for your return if the weather is acceptable or start searching for alternates if not. "We've got a bird strike on our left engine, we have it shut down," telegraphs a different message and perhaps there will be time to burn fuel off.

Your Request

This doesn't have to be your complete game plan, it could be something as simple as "Request a ten minute box pattern around the pattern so we can sort this out."

Souls and Fuel on Board

The list of things the controller wants to know is pretty long but only two items beyond those already covered are really important: souls and fuel on board. The crash rescue teams wants the first item; the controller needs to know how much fuel you have in terms of time. Don't bother with pounds or kilograms, they don't matter because the controller doesn't know your burn rate. Here is the complete list of additional information, but don't worry about it:

After initiating action, obtain the following items or any other pertinent information from the pilot or aircraft operator, as necessary:

  1. Aircraft altitude.
  2. Fuel remaining in time.
  3. Pilot reported weather.
  4. Pilot capability for IFR flight.
  5. Time and place of last known position.
  6. Heading since last known position.
  7. Airspeed.
  8. Navigation equipment capability.
  9. NAVAID signals received.
  10. Visible landmarks.
  11. Aircraft color.
  12. Number of people on board.
  13. Point of departure and destination.
  14. Emergency equipment on board.

Source: FAA Order J7110.65V, §2, ¶10-2-1.b.

"We will get back with you with details, keep an eye on us"

You have just given the controller what could become a "career defining moment" and he or she will feel a bit powerless to help. The controllers want to do something and quite often that will be to bug you with questions. "We will get back to you," tells the controller you have other priorities at the moment. "Keep an eye on us," tells the controller that you are not going to be paying as much attention when it comes to avoiding obstacles, other aircraft, and airspace because you are busy. This gives the controller a way to help you.

Other Considerations

Frequency Changes

Although 121.5 MHz and 243.0 MHz are emergency frequencies, it might be best to keep the aircraft on the initial contact frequency. Change frequencies only when there is a valid reason.

Source: FAA Order J7110.65V, §2, ¶10-2-2

It may be in your best interest to switch to the same frequency in use by other traffic but it may also be important to minimize the changes. If you have smoke and fumes in the cockpit, for example, changing frequencies may not be an option. It may be a simple matter of minimizing your workload, but no matter the reason, "Request single frequency for approach and landing" may give you the extra help you need. In the case of El Al 1862, for example, several frequency changes needlessly burdened the crew of a Boeing 747 with two engines on the same side failed.

Getting the Controller in Sync

The air traffic controller is likely to feel a bit helpless in a dire situation and will be nervously trying to help, perhaps a bit too much. Sometimes some plain English will help. In the case of this example:

"My hands are full" was the perfect thing to say.

Airport Selection

Consider the following factors when recommending an emergency airport:

  1. Remaining fuel in relation to airport distances.
  2. Weather conditions.
  3. NOTE−Depending on the nature of the emergency, certain weather phenomena may deserve weighted consideration when recommending an airport; e.g., a pilot may elect to fly farther to land at an airport with VFR instead of IFR conditions.

  4. Airport conditions.
  5. NAVAID status.

Source: FAA Order J7110.65V, §2, ¶10-2-15.a.

After Landing Intentions

If you have the time, let Air Traffic Control know about your plans to evacuate the aircraft. Specifically, where you intend to send the passengers. The best place would normally be upwind (so as not to be overwhelmed with any smoke and fumes), on the grass (so as not to be run over by rescue vehicles), on a diagonal forward or aft of the airplane (in case the wheels explode). In the case of Asiana Flight 214, a passenger was runover by a fire rescue vehicle.


The regulations

While the regulations are the least of your concerns during an emergency, knowing them may help you better understand the pilot-to-controller interface.

14 CFR 91

  1. The pilot in command of an aircraft is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.
  2. In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.
  3. Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.

Source: 14 CFR 91.3

Aeronautical Information Manual

  1. Advise ATC of your minimum fuel status when your fuel supply has reached a state where, upon reaching destination, you cannot accept any undue delay.
  2. Be aware this is not an emergency situation, but merely an advisory that indicates an emergency situation is possible should any undue delay occur.
  3. On initial contact the term “minimum fuel” should be used after stating call sign.
  4. EXAMPLE−Salt Lake Approach, United 621, “minimum fuel.”

  5. Be aware a minimum fuel advisory does not imply a need for traffic priority.

Source: Aeronautical Information Manual, ¶ 5-5-15

  1. The pilot−in−command of an aircraft is directly responsible for and is the final authority as to the operation of that aircraft. In an emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot−in−command may deviate from any rule in 14 CFR Part 91, Subpart A, General, and Subpart B, Flight Rules, to the extent required to meet that emergency.
  2. If the emergency authority of 14 CFR Section 91.3(b) is used to deviate from the provisions of an ATC clearance, the pilot−in−command must notify ATC as soon as possible and obtain an amended clearance.

Source: Aeronautical Information Manual, ¶ 6-1-1, Pilot Responsibility and Authority

  1. An emergency can be either a distress or urgency condition as defined in the Pilot/Controller Glossary. Pilots do not hesitate to declare an emergency when they are faced with distress conditions such as fire, mechanical failure, or structural damage. However, some are reluctant to report an urgency condition when they encounter situations which may not be immediately perilous, but are potentially catastrophic. An aircraft is in at least an urgency condition the moment the pilot becomes doubtful about position, fuel endurance weather, or any other condition that could adversely affect flight safety. This is the time to ask for help, not after the situation has developed into a distress condition.
  2. Pilots who become apprehensive for their safety for any reason should request assistance immediately. Ready and willing help is available in the form of radio, radar, direction finding stations and other aircraft. Delay has caused accidents and cost lives. Safety is not a luxury! Take action!

Source: Aeronautical Information Manual, ¶ 6-1-2, Emergency Condition- Request Assistance Immediately

Pilot Controller Glossary

  • EMERGENCY− A distress or an urgency condition.
  • MINIMUM FUEL− Indicates that an aircraft’s fuel supply has reached a state where, upon reaching the destination, it can accept little or no delay. This is not an emergency situation but merely indicates an emergency situation is possible should any undue delay occur.
  • If the remaining usable fuel supply suggests the need for traffic priority to ensure a safe landing, you should declare an emergency due to low fuel and report fuel remaining in minutes.

Source: Pilot/Controller Glossary

Minimum Fuel

  • If an aircraft declares a state of "minimum fuel," inform any facility to whom control jurisdiction is transferred of the minimum fuel problem and be alert for any occurrence which might delay the aircraft en route.
  • NOTE − Use of the term "minimum fuel" indicates recognition by a pilot that the fuel supply has reached a state whereupon reaching destination, any undue delay cannot be accepted. This is not an emergency situation but merely an advisory that indicates an emergency situation is possible should any undue delay occur. A minimum fuel advisory does not imply a need for traffic priority. Common sense and good judgment will determine the extent of assistance to be given in minimum fuel situations. If, at any time, the remaining usable fuel supply suggests the need for traffic priority to ensure a safe landing, the pilot should declare an emergency and report fuel remaining in minutes.

Source: Air Traffic Organization Policy, ¶5-2-14.

We used to think of declaring "min fuel" akin to saying, "I dare you to give me another vector, because if you do, I am going to declare an emergency and that will really muck up your system, won't it!" The term used to carry no weight at all. Over the years, it seems, U.S. ATC controllers have become more empathetic with their counterparts in the air. You certainly see that when asking for weather deviations and I think also with your fuel state. But the bottom line on running out of gas is it is your hide not theirs. The only thing they can ask of you if you declare an emergency for fuel is to make a written report of how you got in that situation. You can answer that you had the legally required amount when you took off and the winds and a number of altitude, airspeed, or heading assignments ate up your reserves. That's much better than seeing your engine gauges wind down short of the chocks, isn't it?


"The Right Stuff" (Really?)

There is a lot of folklore associated with the movie and the book, The Right Stuff, much of it wrong. There was a time, in the fifties, where perhaps some of this existed. There was still a little of the "I'm too manly to declare an emergency" mentality during my time in the Air Force. But I never subscribed to it.

  • There were two reasons why a fighter pilot hated to declare an emergency. First, it triggered a complex and very public chain of events at the field: all other incoming flights were held up, including many of one's comrades who were probably low of fuel; the fire trucks came trundling out to the runway like yellow toys (as seen from way up there), the better to illustrate one's hapless state; and the bureaucracy began to crank up the paper monster for the investigation that always followed. And second, to declare an emergency, one first had to reach that conclusion in his own mind, which to the young pilot was the same as saying, "A minute ago I still had it — now I need your help!" To have a bunch of fighter pilots up in the air thinking this way used to drive flight controllers crazy. They would see a ship beginning to drift off the radar, and they couldn't rouse the pilot on the microphone for anything other than a few meaningless mumbles, and they would know he was probably out there with engine failure at a low altitude, trying to reignite by lowering his auxiliary righ, which had a little propeller that was supposed to spin in the slipstream like a child's pinwheel.
  • "Whiskey Kilo Two Eight, do you want to declare an emergency?"
  • This would rouse him! — to say: "Negative, negative, Whiskey Kilo Two Eight is not declaring an emergency."
  • Kaboom. Believers in the right stuff would rather crash and burn.

Source: Wolf, p. 32


Recent examples

This from the news 6 October 2017:

Investigators have disclosed that a diverted Air Canada Boeing 787-9's crew had to declare a Mayday four times over a low-fuel situation before being given approach clearance to Hyderabad.

The aircraft had originally been bound for Mumbai but was shuttled between alternate airports owing to capacity problems.

Transportation Safety Board of Canada states in a bulletin that it is "in contact" with India's accident investigation authority over the 19 September incident.

The aircraft (C-FGEI), which departed Toronto on 18 September, had been operating AC46 to Mumbai with 177 passengers and 14 crew members.

But Mumbai air traffic controllers cancelled the approach after a runway excursion involving another aircraft. The bulletin does not specifically identify this incident, but a SpiceJet Boeing 737-800 suffered an excursion shortly before the 787's arrival.

The Canadian bulletin says the 787 entered a hold for 1h but its crew then opted to divert to their alternate.

It does not identify the alternate but states that air traffic control informed the crew that they could not be accommodated owing to reaching maximum capacity.

The crew then chose to divert a second time to Hyderabad, after consulting with the carrier's operations centre, only to be informed by air traffic control en route that Hyderabad had already reached maximum capacity and could not handle the flight.

According to the bulletin Air Canada informed investigators that air traffic control "continued trying to divert the flight or attempted to place it in another hold", adding that the crew had to declare a Mayday over the aircraft's low-fuel situation four times before being cleared for a straight-in approach to Hyderabad's runway 09L.

Flight AC46, which has a scheduled duration of around 14h 30min, had been operating for around 17h at the time of arrival. The aircraft landed safely.

See also:

Case Study: Avianca 52

Case Study: El Al 1862


(Source material)

14 CFR 91, Title 14: Aeronautics and Space, General Operating and Flight Rules, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation

Aeronautical Information Manual

Air Traffic Organization Policy Order JO 7110.10X, April 3, 2014, U.S. Department of Transportation

FAA Order JO 7110.65V, Air Traffic Control, April 3, 2014, Department of Transportation

FAA Order JO 7340.2F, Contractions, October 15, 2015, U.S. Department of Transportation

FAA Pilot/Controller Glossary, 8/22/13

ICAO Annex 2 - Rules of the Air, International Standards, Annex 2 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, July 2005

Peterson, Jordan B., 12 Rules for Life, Penguin Random House, Toronto, 2018.

Wolf, Tom, "The Right Stuff," McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd, Toronto, 1979