The Pilot’s Lounge #56:
I Ain’t Declaring No Steenkin’ Emergency

Too many pilots are reluctant to declare an emergency, sometimes waiting until it is too late for help to be given. AVweb's Rick Durden knows that lots of resources and options open up to a pilot who does call.


The Pilots LoungeThere are days in the pilots lounge at the virtual airport that I learn by just sitting and listening to my betters. It so happened that I recently had an opportunity to pick up some pointers on dealing with emergencies due to a drama that played itself out over two days. Not surprisingly, Old Hack was one of the protagonists. I have a lot of respect for Old Hack. He’s been flying for more than a half century, and only got his instrument rating a couple of years ago after realizing that his long practice of scud running was simply becoming too dangerous due to the proliferation of towers. Hack is a good, generally pragmatic pilot, but he is a bit set in his ways, has some strongly held opinions and holds loudly to some old wives tales. In spite of now holding an instrument rating, he considers air traffic controllers to be not quite human, but evils to be merely tolerated in the process of getting where he wants to go. He’s not the least afraid of talking on the radio, he just won’t say any more to a controller than is essential for him to make his flight. While he might grudgingly wish a controller a nice day, the idea of volunteering information about the flight is an anathema. “Those gummint-paid drones are sittin’ on their fat backsides suckin’ up my hard-earned money and there ain’t nothin’ they can do to fly my airplane for me if somethin’ goes wrong,” is one version of the mantra I heard from Old Hack when I was working with him on emergencies and required reports to ATC in the process of getting his instrument rating. Let’s just say we didn’t see eye to eye on that portion of his training, and no, I didn’t raise the matter of the double negative in his pronouncement.

The other player in the drama was Sandy, owner of a nice Citabria. The other airplane she flies on a regular basis is a wide-body. She gets paid for that activity but has to wear a uniform with four stripes on the sleeve when she goes to work; however, she says that she can put up with that because, at least on the flight deck, the other two folks laugh at her jokes even when they aren’t funny. She is one of the finest pilots I’ve ever flown with.

Sandy’s Emergency


The first act in the play occurred over at the controlled airport, where Sandy had gone to meet some friends for lunch. Passing through about 1,500 feet on climb out for the flight home, Sandy became aware of a strong odor of fuel. She started a turn back for the airport and advised the controller she was returning. The controller did what he was supposed to do and asked about the nature of the problem. Sandy told him that she had a fuel smell in the cockpit. The departure controller responded with a heading directly to the airport and asked if she wanted the trucks.

Sandy didn’t hesitate; she said she wanted the trucks and that it was an emergency. The controller did his thing to alert the crash crews and asked the standard questions needed to help the crash crews in case things go south: “How many souls aboard and how much fuel?”

Sandy provided the information as she turned base and watched the trucks start to position themselves. The departure controller had coordinated traffic with the local (tower) controller and issued the landing clearance. Sandy advised him that she was going to turn off the electrical system and radios after this transmission, then land, shut the airplane down on a taxiway and get out. The controller said he’d relay the information.

Sandy cut the master switch as she turned final. After touchdown, she pulled the mixture and cut the mags. She turned onto an intersecting taxiway, rolled just past the hold bars before stopping the airplane, got out and walked about 50 feet away from the airplane. She was met by two firefighters as others took positions around the airplane. She explained the situation. The chief said that his crew would look things over from outside first and see if any further action were needed. The firefighters walked around the airplane without observing any sign or fire or dripping fuel. The chief asked Sandy for permission to look inside, which she gave. He stuck his head in and immediately commented on the fuel odor.

Over the next 15 minutes the chief arranged for a tug to take the airplane to the shop Sandy selected and gave her a ride to the FBO in his truck, shook her hand and departed. The only information he asked of her was her name and where the airplane was based.

At the FBO, Sandy arranged with the head of maintenance for someone to find and repair the fuel leak. She made two discoveries: that the shop wouldn’t be able to get to her Citabria until Monday, and Old Hack was there because he had outlived his nonflying wife and was using the life insurance money to get his multi-engine rating and would give Sandy a ride home in his Super Cruiser. Despite its initial attraction, the second discovery proved much less pleasant than the first.

Hack’s Annoyance

During the flight back, Hack asked Sandy what happened. She described the situation and Hack, being merely opinionated and verbal on his good days, jumped all over Sandy for telling the controller why she wanted to return to the airport and for using the “E” word.

By the time the two of them got back here, Hack was in fine voice. He allowed as how Sandy shouldn’t have told the controller anything because it was absolutely none of his business why she was returning to the airport. He was a “guyuddamned” federal employee and unless he was working for Homeland Security she shouldn’t have told him squat other than she wanted was coming back to land. In Hack’s eyes, Sandy had done nearly everything wrong and, because he had been flying for over 50 years, he knew a heck of a lot more than some younger woman, even if she had become an airline captain because of affirmative action. Sandy should never, ever have asked for the trucks or declared an emergency. “You idiot,” he said to Sandy in his diplomatic way, “You’ll never see the end of the paperwork for declaring an emergency, especially because they rolled the trucks. Don’t you know nothin’ about keeping your mouth closed? You just told everyone on that frequency that you couldn’t handle a simple little fuel smell and that you don’t have what it takes to be a pilot.”

“By gawd,” Old Hack continued, “You should have known the systems on that airplane better, you’ve owned it long enough. You should have just flown on back here. If you didn’t like the smell, you could have opened the vents. Then the mechanic here could have looked things over and you wouldn’t have your wallet cleaned out the way those folks will over there at that fancy FBO.”

Naturally, a crowd of pilots and students gathered to gawk at the spectacle of Hack and Sandy having at it. Sandy is pretty polite, but she can be pushed just so far; she was a nationally ranked athlete in college and she isn’t the least bit afraid of confrontation. She’d kept quiet until then out of consideration for Hack’s providing the ride back to home plate, but he’d used up all of her appreciation for the favor. She looked at Hack and said, “Okay, Loudmouth, my turn.”

Sandy’s Rebuttal

Airliner with Fire Trucks

Old Hack glared at Sandy as she spoke, “First of all, I know the systems of the Citabria cold and I can draw you the fuel system right here, right now. I know where the fuel lines run in the cabin, but what I didn’t know then and still don’t know, was where the leak was that gave me the fuel smell. It could have been benign. You know what? The chances are excellent that when the mechanic calls, that’s what it’s going to turn out to be. Maybe I could have flown back here. But there’s no way in the world to be certain that the leak wasn’t going to start a fire, which means the only thing to do is land immediately. Because I know that fabric-covered airplane well, I know exactly how bad things could be and how fast they can go bad, so I wanted the trucks and I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any delay in getting back to the airport.

“Hack, do you remember the four-engine jet that was coming up from South America to JFK several years ago? The one that was low on fuel and in which the pilot on the radio kept hinting at the problem but never actually declared an emergency, so they did not get priority handling? Remember that the crew finally ran it out of gas and crashed? That one could very well have been a non-event if the crew had simply told ATC they had an emergency. They all died because they were way too cool to admit they had a problem.”

Sandy went on, “I spend a heck of a lot of time in recurrent training and I read a lot of accident reports. That accident, in my opinion, was because a crew wouldn’t admit to anyone that they had a problem much less seek outside help. So they stayed quiet and killed themselves and a bunch of innocent passengers.”

Hack jumped right back at her, “Yeah, but you declared an emergency, why didn’t you just tell the controller you wanted to be number one to land? Now you’ve got all that paperwork to deal with because you declared an emergency.”

How Much Paperwork?

“I don’t know where you or those half-wits who show up in magazine articles talking about not declaring an emergency because of paperwork, get your information.” Sandy remonstrated and correctly pointed out, “There is no paperwork involved with declaring an emergency. None. Take a look at FAR 91.3. The only time there is any paperwork is if you have to violate a reg when you are dealing with the emergency, and then only if the FAA asks for a report. I’ve been flying for 25 years and I have yet to hear of someone having to deal with any paperwork because he declared an emergency. That is the most miserable excuse for not declaring an emergency when things are going bad that I’ve heard. Besides, you can’t just tell ATC you want to be first in line to land, you better have a reason. If you’ve got enough of a problem that you aren’t comfortable taking your turn to land, than maybe you ought use your head and take advantage of all the resources you’ve got available to you as a pilot. One of those resources is ATC, because they can make sure the other airplanes get out of the way, and they can get those guys with the fire trucks moving so you don’t crispy critter waiting for the trucks you didn’t alert.”

Old Hack wasn’t buying: The discussion went on for some time. Hack said that he doesn’t want the government looking over his shoulder when he’s flying, so he is not going to do anything to get Big Brother’s attention unless things are seriously wrong and, even then, as a pilot, he should be able to handle the problem by himself, so he’ll go to an uncontrolled airport and deal with it. Sandy countered with a definite level of understanding about the fear of government knowledge of her activities, especially now when yet another government agency has been formed specifically to spy on the citizenry using the excuse of protecting them from terrorists; however, she said that politics has to take a back seat to physics. If there is something wrong when she’s in a machine that has the kinetic energy of an airplane, her first concern is getting it on the ground without hurting anyone and if that means telling an employee of the federal government she has a problem, so be it. Besides, she has a relative who is a fire fighter and she knows what sort of crash/fire/rescue equipment is available at controlled fields and that it just isn’t there at most other airports. She’s flown for a living long enough to know that if there is something wrong with the airplane, especially when there is a risk of fire, she is going to get it on the ground, get out of the airplane and let the experts deal with the fire risk. She’s an expert on flying airplanes; she doesn’t claim to be an expert on fighting fires. She’ll get the airplane to a spot where the experts can put out a fire and she can get it to that selected spot as fast and accurately as any pilot, anywhere. She also knows from conversations with her relative that if she can get word to the firefighters as to how much gas she’s got on board, whether there is any hazardous material and how many people are in the airplane, those experts can plan their attack on the fire so as to maximize the chance of getting all the people out while minimizing the risk of anyone being hurt or killed.

One FAA Despot

FAA Logo

Old Hack still wasn’t buying Sandy’s position. He referred to a very nasty situation that occurred in this state several years ago. There, the FAA engaged in what we felt was just plain dirty pool. A small charter operator was making a passenger trip in a light twin. A crankshaft failed, through no fault of anything that the operator or his mechanics did, and the engine seized. He couldn’t feather the prop. The weather was crummy, low ceilings and viz. He declared an emergency, diverted to the nearest airport with an ILS, shot the approach and landed without scratching the passengers or the airplane. As far as we were concerned, it was a good reflection on his company’s training program. To our horror, a rogue FAA inspector decided that the pilot wasn’t due any kudos for being competent, and, perhaps being jealous of someone who could actually hold a job flying for a living, spent days going through the operator’s paperwork. He found that the trip in question had departed some 60 pounds over gross. Everything else for the previous two years was clean. Rather than have a quiet chat with the operator, the inspector busted him. Of course the news spread like wildfire. Because the vast majority of pilots are politically conservative, it was a red flag pointing out that you can’t trust the FAA, and general aviation pilots in the area became even more unwilling to admit problems when aloft. There are a few of us who hold the opinion that there was a direct link from that inspector’s unsportsmanlike conduct to at least two fatal accidents.

Sandy admitted that the FAA often behaves in ways that don’t make it a pilot’s friend. However, she made a good case for the fact that one should consider the hierarchy of concerns a pilot faces when things go bump in the night. If there is something wrong with the airplane, it can kill you. Therefore, your concern should be for the survival of yourself and your passengers. Even if you don’t have much of a sense of self-preservation, once you got a pilot certificate your ethical obligation became keeping your passengers healthy and any worry you have about the FAA coming down on you should fall far down the scale, well below the duty you have to take the correct steps to assure your passengers are safe. That means declaring that you have either an urgent situation or an emergency as a part of marshalling the resources available for you to complete your flight safely. As a responsible pilot you don’t rule out a resource because you are concerned about a side effect that has nothing to do with life and death.

Old Hack wouldn’t let go. He maintained that a pilot should be able to handle anything thrown at him in the air without whining for help from the ground. Otherwise, he just doesn’t cut it as a pilot. Hack launched into an attack on those who would buy airplanes with parachutes or have them retrofitted to existing airplanes. He said that any pilot who deploys the parachute tells the world that he doesn’t have the right stuff to be a pilot.

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

You could feel the temperature soar in the room. Sandy looked at Old Hack and said she wanted to make sure she understood what he was saying. She’d looked at records of the many lives saved in ultralights by parachutes, particularly in cases of structural failure or mid-air collisions. She then referred to the pilot in Texas who was alive because of the parachute in a Cirrus after an aileron came adrift, causing control of the airplane to become seriously in doubt. She praised that pilot and, using that encyclopedic storehouse of information in her head, systematically disassembled Old Hack’s arguments. She went through what was involved in acceptance of parachutes in the early 1920s because “real men” didn’t abandon airplanes; they supposedly rode them down and got them under control. That silly, macho nonsense finally went away after enough test pilots jumped out of airplanes that were absolutely uncontrollable, and thus lived to be able to explain what was wrong so they could be fixed. The next big problem was with the military and ejection seats. For some time pilots refused to eject because they might be admitting they didn’t have the right stuff, so they stayed with the airplane and died. The Air Force and Navy had to instigate intensive training programs and set parameters for the use of the seats. They castigated pilots who did not eject even though they lucked out and landed without killing themselves.

Sandy is a student of aviation and airline history. She recounted to Hack the steps the airlines had to take to get their crews to declare emergencies because they had suffered too many dead passengers because of pigheaded captains who thought that their manhood would be questioned if they declared an emergency, even, in some instances, with an engine on fire. The airlines had to set out procedures that said that if certain irregularities or abnormalities occur, the crew must declare an emergency, even if those events seem almost trivial to the usual Monday-morning quarterbacks. The airlines had learned from the school of hard knocks that even if 40 times out of 41 the airplane landed safely, that the 41st, which lead to a crash or fire, meant that the crew had to prepare for the worst every single time because you had no way of knowing which time this was. Sandy said that the airlines had censured some crews who made successful landings when encountering difficulties because they did not declare an emergency and have ground help standing by.

It was about then that others joined the discussion, including Randy, who has flown about everything ever built. He made a comment that general aviation pilots seem to be the least willing to declare an emergency, yet are the ones who are the most at risk when they don’t. He said that because general aviation pilots have the least recurrent training, they do not practice emergency procedures and thus they do far worse than Part 135 or 121 pilots when they have to deal with a problem in flight. That lower skill level is the first thing that should be augmented by a request for help from ATC, yet, perhaps because of the lack of good recurrent training, the quality of judgment exhibited by general aviation pilots is also low, which causes them to not admit they have a problem and need help. And so too many die.

It was about that time that Old Hack, sensing the mood of the room was swinging against him, huffed out to the parking lot, got in his car and left.

Hack’s Emergency

Piper Aztec

There is an almost poetic sequel to the Friday-night fight. On Saturday afternoon I was getting ready to go fly with a student when I saw Old Hack wheel-land the Super Cruiser on the grass runway, keep the tail in the air all the way down the taxiway and brake hard to a stop outside the office. He climbed out, hurried into the office, found Sandy and, to her open-mouthed astonishment, hugged her tightly and thanked her profusely for yelling at him the previous evening.

When we got them separated, Hack told the story. He was back for another lesson in the Aztec. On climb-out he’d shut off the aux fuel pumps, one at a time. Twenty seconds or so later, one of the engines started to cut in and out. He figured that the last thing he’d touched was the aux pump switches, so he turned them both back on. Everything smoothed out, so he and the instructor decided to leave the aux pumps on until they had more altitude and then explore the situation. They leveled off, set low cruise power and shut off the right aux pump. They waited two minutes. Everything continued to run fine. Hack shut off the left aux pump. Twenty seconds later the left engine quit, restarted momentarily and quit again. Hack turned the aux pump on. After a few moments the engine restarted and ran perfectly.

Old Hack and the instructor discussed the situation and decided the engine-driven fuel pump on the left engine had expired. They figured that was enough to terminate the lesson, so Hack called departure control and said they wanted to return. The controller gave them a vector for the airport and asked the nature of the problem. Old Hack said he was about to tell the controller it was none of his business when he was struck by the nagging concern that it was strange that it took the engine so long to quit after the aux pump was shut off and maybe, just maybe, his diagnosis of a failed engine-driven fuel pump might be in error. He said he had been thinking about what Sandy had said ever since last night, and found himself telling the controller that he had a problem with one engine.

When the controller asked if Old Hack wanted the trucks, he saw the instructor shaking his head “no” but heard himself intoning in his clearest airline-pilot voice, “Affirmative, roll the trucks, I don’t know the full nature of the problem, better consider it an emergency.”

Hack said his instructor was male, kind of young and started to argue with him. Hack looked at us standing around him and said, “I told the kid that it’s okay to declare an emergency, I pay my tax money and otherwise those guys driving the tucks would just spend the day cutting the grass.”

Hack’s Enlightenment

Looking steadily at Sandy as he went on, Old Hack said, “I felt kind of funny flaring to land with those trucks on the taxiway, gumball lights flashing away. On rollout someone on the frequency said that there were flames coming from the left engine of the Aztec. I glanced over and saw them, stood on the brakes and told the instructor to pop the door. As we stopped I turned the fuel off, pulled the mixtures to idle cutoff, turned off the mags and master, and I think I beat the kid out the door. The trucks were right there, I mean right there, and had the fire out pretty quickly.”

Hack said, “It turned out not to be the engine-driven fuel pump, it was a cracked fuel line. When we decelerated the fuel started to hit the hot exhaust and lit off.”

There was a circle of very wide-eyed pilots around Old Hack and Sandy. Old Hack said, “If this would have happened yesterday, I would never have called for the trucks. The instructor and I would have talked each other out of admitting an emergency … you know how two guys are in a general aviation airplane, they will not ever do anything to admit that they might have a problem. Neither of us would have seen the fire until it was bigger, and that airplane would have either burned to a cinder or exploded with us in it. We had about 130 gallons of 100 low lead in the tanks. There’s no way the trucks could have responded in time to help because we would not have alerted them. Sandy, by telling me I was full of crap, you saved my life.”

Some details and names and types of airplanes have been changed to protect the guilty.

See you next month.