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.