Emergency: Declare Early, Declare Often


Somewhere in my archives, I have a collection of ATC audio recordings that were supposed to convey deeper aeronautical meaning beyond their entertainment value. A couple of them I might call non-declarations—that is, they were examples of real-life emergency situations that were never called as much. To that collection, I’ll add the ATC audio of last week’s crash of the Collings Foundation B-17 at Bradley Airport in Connecticut.

I’m commenting again not to second guess the crew’s decisions, but to point out how pilots and controllers have a genuine reluctance to use the word “emergency.” The NTSB files are full of this sort of stuff. A pilot reports a problem and the dance commences. The controller asks how serious it is, what it is and if the pilot wishes to declare an emergency sometimes disguised as “say intentions.” The answer is often something like, “Not yet. We’ll let you know.”

I think it’s possible to both over and under think why this is so. Because pilots are known to have egos, is saying the E-word somehow an admission of defeat? Or worry about provoking enforcement action? Maybe simple courtesy in not wanting to inconvenience others for this piddling engine fire I have that I can certainly handle on my own with no fuss?

I can only answer for myself. In my flying career, I’ve had two emergencies, one I declared and the other declared for me by a controller. The declared one was in a twin at night, following a turbocharger hose that came adrift. I’ve always been hinky about turbocharger failures because if one occurs on the hot side of that plumbing, it can torch the entire works a lot quicker than you can find a place to land. Mine was on the cold side, which we discovered on the ground after the emergency declaration and landing.

The one declared for me was done by a New York TRACON controller after I reported a rough engine in IMC north of Caldwell, New Jersey. He offered a straight-in localizer approach to Runway 22 and we took it. I only realized it was handled as an emergency after we landed and the tower rolled the “equipment.”

That’s in quotes because at the time, the equipment was a surplus three-quarter ton truck with two barrels of sand and a fire extinguisher. It was manned by two fat guys in yellow slickers and Sou’wester rain hats. I’m not complaining, mind you. I’d have been happy to have them if I was on fire.

So why didn’t I declare an emergency? Frankly, because it never occurred to me. I was with an instrument student and we were busy setting up the approach because we were almost on top of the localizer when the problem—turned out to be a cracked cylinder—manifested. Once we were on the approach, maybe I thought there was no point in declaring. After the fact, I learned that the controller had shooed some traffic out of the way and essentially, that’s all emergency handing is: priority.

Beyond that and perhaps notifying crash, fire and rescue, there’s not much else ATC can do for you. They can’t replace your turbocharger hose or reset your alternator or scrape the ice off the wings. They can move traffic out of the way and offer a sugar word or two, but that’s about it.

If you listen to the Bradley tape, you’ll hear the controller trying to suss the seriousness of the situation. But you’ll also hear him cancel an approach clearance for another airplane, beginning the priority handling to cut a hole for the distress aircraft. Yet … later in the recording, he calls the incident a “situation” rather than the emergency it really is.

One misconception is that you have to declare the emergency in order to deviate. Nope. Emergency authority resides permanently and is there for the taking. Always. You don’t need to say it to land on any runway you want to resolve an emergency. No clearance or permission required. You can explain yourself after the fact.

It’s worth reading 14 CFR 91.3 once a year, the part that says, “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.” For government prose, it doesn’t get any more succinct than that.

So I’m writing about it as a public service announcement to remind you. And myself, for that matter. I have a demonstrated need for remediation.

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  1. Hi Paul,
    Good comments. I was a controller for 10 yrs USAF and 25 FAA. The atc controller handbook faa order 7110.65 specifically says the pilot, controller, officials responsible for the flight may declare an emergency. it doesnt need to be told to the pilot that ive already rang the crash phone in the twr cab, called 911, etc. the pilot he/she is busy enough and doesnt need any added stress. its better to roll the first responders and they are ready at a moments notice. better safe than sorry. some pilots where landing and keyed up and asked who all the trucks and lights are for. simply told ‘you!’.
    airports have the twr and local fire and arpt mgmt do semi annual get togethers , mou’s , mock exercises. everyones pitching in to help, the way it should be.

  2. I learned the power of saying things out-loud when I was in “the box” (a Redbird, but close enough for us GA-ers) and the instructor failed stuff on me in IMC and I had to actually use the words “I’m declaring an emergency”. I had never actually used the phrase before (thankfully because at that point, I had never actually needed to), and it felt ominous…even though it was only a simulation and wasn’t real. Since then, I have most of my clients actually have to say the phrase when we’re simulating an emergency so they can get used to what it feels like to do so (and what it’s like to hear themselves utter the phrase).

    As for my own experiences, I had to declare once (not getting full power in a Warrior on takeoff – it ended up most likely being carb ice and a bit on the backside of the power curve from the student’s takeoff) and had one declared on my behalf one other time (also by NY approach). In the case of the non-declared one, I experienced engine roughness on an IFR (in VMC) climb-out passing through 5000′ that wasn’t due to a mixture setting or carb icing. I had plenty of altitude, the engine was still running, it was practically severe-clear, and there was almost no other traffic at the airport, so I didn’t feel it required priority handling…other than wanting to stay at altitude longer.

  3. I’ve declared twice. Once was sickly-smelling smoke in the cockpit shortly after takeoff, maybe a mile upwind. Called the tower, told them I was returning to land and turning off my radios. The last thing I heard before hitting the master was them clearing the aircraft after me to immediately take off or clear the runway. I was back on the ground in maybe 90 seconds. A monster of a fire truck was waiting for me on the taxiway.

    The second was major engine roughness about five miles out from my destination. Told the tower I was going to stay high and glide in, and that I’d probably be unable to make a go around, needed the runway guaranteed to me. Didn’t ask for the trucks, didn’t get them.

    The first turned out to be engine cleaner solvent that had dripped into the muffler shroud and started burning off when takeoff power came on. Harmless, would have stopped in a few minutes. The second turned out to be an exhaust manifold that burst a big hole in it. Could have caused real damage if let go for a while, or at least carbon monoxide issues.

    In neither case was there any sort of paperwork or follow-up, beyond a “glad you’re safe.”

    My lesson? When in doubt, ask for the trucks. I felt a little silly after the first incident, but never really second-guessed my decision. The latter, I still have nighmares about. What if something did happen, and I needed the trucks, and they weren’t there?

    If I have a third, I’m going to lean towards asking for the trucks.

  4. “…the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.”

    Thanks goodness for the USA!
    It’s NO SO in other countries and you will be fined and or imprisoned if you need to set down wherever you deem fit or land on whatever runway you need to land safely.

  5. I thank my instructors many years past. They had me “declare an emergency” any time they created one in my training..you know covered the instruments, pulled power, killed an engine in twin training, etc.

    So when one dark and stormy night I lost all electrics in a Saratoga (shorted Battery) over the Green Mountains full IFR. I declared an emergency with Burlington VT Approach using my dying radio, got vectors, they cleared the airspace got the SAC base at Plattsburgh to turn on their powerful radar (no power, no transponder). I got over Lake Champlain by the vectors and time, circled down through the overcast at 1500 feet saw Burlington with every light on, made a beeline, landed, taxied being trailed by the crash trucks and pulled up to a empty large parking spot. Shut down… Thanked Jesus… the crash truck guys told the tower all was well. The next day I met with the FAA we pulled the battery It was obviously toast. That was the end of it.

    So I add my AMEN to the statement “declare an emergency” no one will think ill of you!

  6. I have over 6000 hours of flying 95 different kinds of aircraft to include Airplanes Single and Multiengine Land and sea, Rotorcraft Helicopter, Glider, and gyroplanes, DC-3, C500, DA10. I have been a CFI Gold Seal since 1970, and NAFI Master Instructor, All the ground Instructors, Flight Dispatcher, Remote Pilot, and CTO. Ok so much for that.
    In 1986 I was working for a check hauler flying various single engine aircraft and one night on my way back to Orlando from Miami, while in descent I changed tanks in a Cessna 210 as per the descent check list to the heavier indicated tank. The time was midnight, and Orlando Intl was shooting Cat II approaches while Orlando Executive was at my minimums of 200/ 1/2 mile. I left cruise power on and booted my speed up to get to the OM before the weather was declared below my minimums. While in descent at 2300 feet and 4.5 miles SW of ORL the engine would down. While flying above the fog, I switched tanks back to the original and turned on the boost pump, pushed in the mixture and nothing happened. My first call to ATC was to approach control and I basically said “Flight Express 117 has an engine problem. He first started to turn me toward the ILS at MCO, and I replied to just aim me at the airport. He stopped my turn at a heading of 060 while I tried to figure out the problem. I was indicating 200 pounds in the left tank and 300 pounds in the right tank. It quit on the right tank so I went back to left tank even with the imbalance. The controller made calls saying I was an emergency. Regulations say the pilot, controller, or Dispatcher can declare an emergency. I slowly let my speed decrease in descent as I wanted to have the energy to jump over something if I didn’t like what I saw. The controller asked if my engine was running to which I replied “NO”. He continued the vectors and in my final turn to 360 I finally saw the runway lights at about 75 feet. I slapped the gear handle down and got a green light about 5 seconds before I touched down and rolled out. Now I stayed with AC the whole way as he coordinated the emergency. After coming to a stop I remembered that the big guys were using this runway so I opened the door and stepped out with my headset still on. I asked if the big guys were still coming in and was told no but that CFR was out there looking for me in the fog. The controller had my aircraft towed to the FBO on the west side and I finally got to look it over. I reported to our Chief Pilot as per the regulations with a report that I thought, after looking in the fuel tanks that the right one showed 300# but when I looked it looked empty. Chief Pilot told me to fill it up and run it, if I was satisfied to take off and bring it to Executive. I did as instructed. The next day the tank sensor was determined to be bad and we went to a manual. dip tube, tank check. The FAA investigated and conclusion was I did a heck of a job getting it in with no damage. Later I found out it takes about 4 minutes and 30 seconds to reprime the fuel system if fuel is exhanusted in a Cessna 210. My flight from engine failure to touch down and roll out was 3 minutes and 10 seconds, not enough time to reprime.
    Conclusion: Fly the aircraft, communicate the problem, take action that is required, have a mental picture of what is going on and your options. I needed power to stay on an ILS so that was out. An ASR approach was the only option. By going to the airport it was open and I could land on grass. Never give up.
    The next day I took the Controller a bottle of good Scotch and got a copy of the ATC tape. I still have it today. My father who was my primary instructor listened to it and I could see a since of pride of what he pounded into me as a student pilot.
    I am sure the B-17 pilots were doing everything in their power to bring the bird back for a landing and something beyond their control finally brought them down. It is a shame they lost their lives and a beautiful aircraft. That is a second B-17 lost, the one in Illinois a few years back, and it just makes the flying war birds even more rare. Airplanes are mean to fly, and being put in museums just preserves their bones.

  7. Thank you Mr. Bertorelli for your article. It highlights an awkwardness/uneasiness/reluctance by US pilots that I’ve found interesting.

    I was trained in the US, flew for a US Airline, all the while believing that you just don’t declare an emergency unless you absolutely must. I don’t ever remember being specifically told that but it was very ingrained into my psyche.

    Then I went to work with a foreign airline. Several of the American pilots in my group and I were nearly mocked by the instructors about our Mayday insecurities. We were told to basically ALWAYS declare a Mayday and work out the details later.

    We also had one other helpful tools drilled into our heads that I found almost as useful as a mayday call; that was the pan-pan call. I’m not talking about a cheap pizza deal but the call used to convey distress (Pan-pan) but not urgency (Mayday). I used it several times to great success. If we had something unusual crop up but did not need priority handling, we called “pan-pan”. However, if the situation escalated, ATC would not be surprised and was ready to give us priority immediately upon the use of “Mayday.”

    As far as I know, “pan-pan” is still in the AIM (6.3.1). https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/aim_html/chap6_section_3.html

    Any ideas as to why this isn’t in the lexicon of US pilots? Our Air Traffic Controllers in the US are outstanding but would many even know what I meant if I keyed the mic and began with, “pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan…”?

    • I think it’s a cultural thing. Instructors don’t push or even elucidate the difference between pan-pan and emergency declaration. I think you nailed it with your experience in the foreign airlines. It’s just a hang up with many U.S. pilots. But not all.

    • I never saw the purpose of the Pan-Pan call as opposed to Mayday. If the situation is “urgent”, to me that means I require priority handling; i.e. an emergency. The only purpose I can think of is if there are two emergencies happening at the same time, and which one is “more important”.

        • I wasn’t planning on going into credentials and personal experiences but here is one that happened to me that, as far as I remember was the first time I used the pan-pan call.

          We were descending into Paris-CDG out of FL200 or so when my first officer noticed a small crack in his windscreen. He leaned forward and tapped the window. Looking at me, he said, “Did you see this? I think my window just cracked.” As he tapped it one more time, the windscreen spidered.

          Both being aware of the BAC-111 incident where the captain was sucked out the window, we cinched our belts as tight as we could and dove into the Abnormal and Emergency Checklist.

          The checklist called for us to zero out the pressurization system so that the cabin was at the same atmospheric pressure as the ambient air; in so doing, the window would no longer have pressure pushing it out of the airplane. We “caught the cabin” at around 8,000 feet.

          Now, with the crisis seemingly behind us, nothing else should have, nor did, go wrong. I took over the controls for the rest of the flight and we continued on to a normal landing. However, things COULD conceivably escalate and, if they did, they may escalate quickly. It was nice having ATC aware that we’ve had something abnormal happen but did not need priority handling. There was distress, but not urgency.