This article originally appeared in IFR MAGAZINE.
The FAA hasn't done a very good job of making it easy for pilots and controllers to say "I've got a problem here and I need some help right now." Some pilots are under the mistaken impression that controllers are cops, just waiting to violate them for the slightest transgression of the FARs. And even if no FARs are busted, you can be certain that an air carrier pilot who declares an emergency will be explaining why he did so to (at least) his company. Therefore, pilots often keep quiet about problems when they shouldn't or play word games with controllers, to avoid the "E- word".
It's frequently the same for controllers. We're sometimes reluctant to take any action that invites scrutiny of our routine work. An experience I had last year shows what can happen. During one shift on a typical hectic IFR day in the TRACON, my frequency died three times. Technicians reviewed the problem, only to find the "bad" frequency had started working again. After three such outages (with no repairs) I filed an unsatisfactory condition report (UCR) which goes straight to Washington and requires an answer to the complaint in writing. Not surprisingly, facility managers aren't too fond of UCRs.
When my complaint was checked out, my tapes were "dumped" (supposedly to discover whether the outage really happened) on every position and frequency I had worked that day, not just the "bad" frequency. The tapes showed that I had really had a problem.
But in the process, management had my supervisor "counsel" me for bad phraseology and improper landline usage. The experience hardly encourages one to draw attention to malfunctions or emergencies.
Nonetheless, when it's necessary, I can't imagine any controller not taking the initiative with an aircraft (or a controller) in distress. The trick, at least for a controller, is to figure out how bad things really are for the pilot, particularly if it's obvious that he or she just doesn't want to admit to a problem.
Nine times out of ten, an incident that deteriorates into an emergency starts with hinting. "Well, we're kinda low on fuel but we're not really what you'd call fuel critical" or "the engine's real rough and making a lot of noise...but we're not declaring an emergency yet."
In a low traffic area, hinting that a problem exists might convince the controller to make minor sequencing changes to speed things along. But in a busy area like New York, traffic flow can be like a giant conga line a hundred or more miles long.
Changing the sequence is not easy. As they listen on the frequency, pilots form a mental picture of whose airplane is where. They are well aware when someone is pushed ahead of them, and they want to know why. Since not everyone is on the same frequency, all pilots don't always hear the hinting. Complaints are worse when you work a high percentage of international traffic. I dread the day when I have a tie with El Al and Saudi-Air, and I have to give one a "spin". Pilots are forgiving, however, if we say that an emergency exists, even if it delays their flight. Unless I've heard the "emergency," however, I may be accused of playing favorites.
Sometimes, a pilot not declaring an emergency puts a controller in a tight spot. I once worked a Boeing 727 that was unable to climb because of a mechanical problem. He was just about to depart my airspace but the controller who was supposed to accept the hand off couldn't take him at the lower altitude. I had very little room to vector him, and letting him depart before he climbed would have been an operational error. Without having the priority an emergency declaration would have allowed, I was stuck. I finally had him fly tight arcs around a VOR until the problem was fixed.
Both the AIM and the controller's handbook go into a lot of detail about how emergencies are described and handled. Some of this suggests that there are steps just shy of really saying emergency.
One we hear a lot is the minimum-fuel advisory. We usually respond by asking if the pilot is declaring an emergency. If the answer is no, the advisory doesn't mean much. All we can really do is advise the pilot of possible delays. Without an official emergency, we're told to handle the airplane normally.
The AIM seems to imply that the international urgency message, the words "pan-pan" repeated three times, is a sort of distress call just short of a real emergency. But a controller will respond the same way to pan-pan, mayday or emergency. These demand priority handling and that's what they will get.
If you're in radio contact, just saying emergency is enough. Squawking 7700 will also work, but it's more useful when we're not talking to the pilot or when the pilot is lost and unsure who he should contact. A 7700 code will blink in bright shades of green and if we don't see it, someone else (usually the center) will.
Calling on 121.5 is also a good procedure if you're not in radio contact. It's monitored at all ATC facilities and aboard many aircraft, including any National Guard helicopters that happen to be around.
Once you've declared, we notify a supervisor. This is not so he can start taking notes to violate you but to allow less critical aircraft to be routed through another controller's airspace. The controller will always try to grant every request from an emergency aircraft, regardless of what FARs have to be ignored. If need be, departures may be stopped or arrivals held. I've seen Kennedy and Laguardia practically shutdown for an inbound emergency aircraft.
If you're in a real bind, no request is too outrageous. We're not allowed to suggest certain things, like landing off-airport on a highway. But if you wish to try it, we won't stop you. If you ask, we can provide no-gyro vectors, the latest weather for the destinations you may be considering, runway and frequency data and so on. When the weather's really low, we can find out whose getting in where and then direct you to the nearest airport with the best weather.
As controllers, we're always being asked by pilots for more direct routes or higher or lower altitudes, usually with good reason. Yet the rules we operate under, which are normally kind of gray, are clear when it comes to priority. We can't give it to you unless you've declared an emergency.