Declaring an Emergency

So, you've declared one. What happens next? The not-so-awful truth.


For reasons not easy to explain, pilots don’t like to ask for help. Just why this is so would make a good topic for a graduate psychology thesis but certainly pride and machismo have a lot to do with it. At the least, fessing upto an emergency seems likely to reveal flawed thinking; at worst, it’s an outright admission of failure. Some choice.

Complicating the issue is the fear of administrative consequence. For all the soothing advice pilots get from their employers and the FAA to get it on the ground first and worry about the paperwork later, no sane person really looks forward to the bureaucratic aftermath of an emergency, no matter how minor. On every pilot’s mind when an emergency’s in the offing is worry about what happens after it’s over. Will there be an investigation? How much paperwork? Will I be violated?

The short answer to those questions seems to be yes, probably none and not likely. The FAA routinely investigates nearly every declared emergency. But according to IFR’s review of the records of two Flight Standards District Offices in the northeast, pilots are almost never drawn into protracted investigations (some are disposed of with a single phone call) and certificate action directly related to the emergency is rare. We checked with several midwest FSDOs and found a similar pattern.

However, we also found that even though the FAA has fairly stringent guidelineson how controllers and administrators should handle emergencies, there’s considerable latitude in how those rules are actually applied so what’s true for one emergency might not be true for the next.

Emergency authority

Many pilots (and controllers) have misconceptions about who can declare an emergency and what happens when one is declared. FAR 91.3, which describes the pilot in command’s authority, is relatively succinct: "In an emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule…to the extent required to meet the emergency." If a deviation does occur, the pilot may be asked to submit a written report to the FAA. The reg doesn’t say the pilot has to declare an emergency in order to deviate; it just allows him or her to do what’s necessary to meet the emergency. Similarly, FAR 91.75 allows deviation from an ATC clearance but it permits ATC to ask for a detailedreport within 48 hours if priority is given.

The AIM elaborates on the pilot’s actions. It says that the pilot who uses his emergency authority to deviate from an ATC clearance "must notify ATC as soon as possible and obtain an amended clearance." Presumably, that notification is tantamount to declaring an emergency.

If no deviation has occurred but an emergency is still indicated, the pilot is supposed to begin the initial transmission with the words "mayday" or "pan-pan"(for urgency). The AIM says pan-pan, repeated three times, indicates uncertainty, alert or urgency. Mayday, on the other hand, indicates "immediate and grave danger" requiring immediate assistance.

The controller’s handbook doesn’t draw nearly so fine a distinction. It seems to lump the two together, saying that "an emergency can be either a distress oran urgency condition." So a pilot who thinks that uttering pan-pan will get priority without formal declaration of an emergency is probably mistaken. A controller who hears mayday or pan-pan is supposed to give priority. And priority is an emergency.

But just as the pilot has to decide on whether an emergency exists, so too doesthe controller have emergency authority. Here’s what the controller’s handbook says: "If the words ‘mayday’ or ‘pan-pan’ are not used and you are in doubt that a situation constitutes an emergency or potential emergency, handle it as though it were an emergency." That means, in effect, that the controller can declare the emergency in the pilot’s behalf, probably without formally announcing the decision to do so.

The paper trail

A real emergency, whether initiated by the pilot or a controller, is classifiedas an "incident" and, at minimum, information on the event will be recorded in the radar or tower facility daily log. Later on, written reports may be required but they’re not done routinely by towers and radar facilities.

Other examples of incidents include flight assists, controller operational errors and pilot deviations.

Shortly after the incident is logged, the local manager phones in a report to the regional operations center which then notifies the FSDO who’s responsible for the area where the emergency occurred. However, here too there appears to be latitude. Some of the entries we reviewed didn’t show up in the FSDO records, suggesting the FSDO wasn’t notified or didn’t deem the entry worth officially recording.

FSDO’s often have an inspector on call 24 hours a day. Emergencies they learn about from the operations center are always followed up with some kind of investigation, sometimes immediately, sometimes within a few days but, by law, within six months. An "investigation" may be as simple as a phone call to the tower to make sure the aircraft landed safely or it could—and often does—involve a visit by the inspector, a ramp check of the aircraft and some questions for the pilot.

If everything is in order, most emergencies (at least for non-commercial aircraft) appear to end there. There’s paperwork for the FSDO (an incident report) but usually none for the pilot and certificate action of any kind is unusual. The incident report will be kept on file by the FSDO and eventually sent to Oklahoma City, where it will become part of the the pilot’s permanent record.

Emergencies involving air carriers or air taxi operations get more scrutiny. In fact, air traffic managers are specifically directed to notify their bosses and FAA headquarters if an emergency involves an air carrier, a commuter or an air taxi. And like any bureaucracy worth its organizational chart, the FAA protects its backside against bad publicity. Managers are supposed to notify headquarters if the aircraft is carrying a member of congress or if the emergency is likely to attract news media attention.

Oddly enough, the air traffic logs and FSDO records don’t always make a distinction as to whether an incident was an emergency or not. From our review of one facility’s daily logs (we looked at six months worth of Bradley International Airport’s radar and tower logs) it was often hard to tell how theincidents were classified. Some log entries plainly said "emergency declared" while others just noted what had occurred and how it was resolved.

Taken together, all these regs and procedures mean that the actual declaration of an emergency or the provision of priority service really doesn’t have much bearing on whether an incident will be investigated. FSDO’s routinely follow upon the incidents they learn about from tower and radar managers. They often don’t know or even care if an actual emergency was declared.

"Routine" emergencies

In reviewing the records emergencies, we we’re surprised at how many there actually were, at least at Bradley International, a moderately busy terminal that handles about 1,800 operations a day and whose airspace extends into south-central Massachusetts and abuts New York TRACON to the southeast.

From October through March, we counted 34 airborne incidents extraordinary enough to show up in the logs. These included five student pilots either lost or caught in weather; seven multi-engine aircraft that landed with one engine shutdown; several rough engines and once severe icing incident. Air carriers landing with flap and gear problems or some kind of warning lights aglow were not unusual. Of the 34, 25 were investigated, the remaining nine either weren’t reported to the FSDO or weren’t considered serious enough to follow up. None of the 25 incidents resulted in violations.

The New York FSDO, who’s responsible for Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark, had 130investigated incidents for calendar 1989, 23 of which appeared to be emergencies of some sort. We say appeared because it’s not always obvious fromthe logs or incident reports if an emergency was actually declared. Two violations occurred; one for a grossly unairworthy aircraft being ferried and asecond for a student who got lost three times on the same day, got caught in a thunderstorm then landed at a controlled field without a clearance.

If there are horror stories of pilots landing after an emergency only to get violated for having a panel light burned out or an out-of-date sectional, we couldn’t find any evidence of them in our admittedly limited look at the files.

Like pilots and controllers, FSDO inspectors have rules to live by and technically, an inspector is derelict if he or she ignores a known violation ofthe FARs. Yet, despite the FAA’s recent reputation for zero-tolerance enforcement, FSDO inspectors do have some latitude. One inspector told us that declaring an emergency isn’t an "automatic, spring-loaded enforcement action" but he admitted that enforcement pickiness is inspector-specific. "If I really want to find a way to bust a pilot, I can do it," said another, "but what’s the point? I’d much rather see compliance than suspend the guy’s ticket."

Kinder enforcement policies

In the strict enforcement climate of the 1980s, inspectors were required by policy to recommend certificate action for certain violations. A TCA bust, for example, brought a mandatory 60-day suspension.

Declaring an emergency is in itself not a violation but pilots have always worried, whether justifiably or not, that the resulting investigation would turn up something that would be.

These days, however, FSDO inspectors are being encouraged to achieve compliance at the lowest levels (on the ramp, if possible) without resorting to legal action.

To do this, they’ve been given a wider range of administrative and remedial tools, including the option of writing warning letters for violations or requiring a pilot to seek additional training in lieu of certificate action. Furthermore, the FAA amended its enforcement and compliance orders in 1990 to state that "declaring an emergency in an appropriate situation is evidence of good judgment and attitude. Such evidence is to be considered in setting enforcement penalties which might result from a violation attendant to such a declaration."

Declaring an emergency has never exposed pilots to undue risk of enforcement action and now, if anything, doing so may credit for good judgement. And since a potential emergency will probably be investigated anway, you might as well declare it and get all the help that’s available.