Merely a Flesh Wound

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How bad does a flight situation have to get before we recognize that we need help?

I like the Black Knight scene in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The Black Knight is getting beat in a sword fight by King Arthur and losing one limb after the other.   He won’t admit he might be in over his head, instead he tells King Arthur, “Tis but a flesh wound.”  When he has nothing left but a body, he claims, “All right, we’ll call it a draw.”  Pretty funny in a movie scene, but that stubborn independent mentality isn’t as funny in a cockpit—and when you lose in flight, it clearly isn’t a draw.

Like the Black Knight, there is a hesitancy among aviators to declare an emergency.  It is something you occasionally see in aviation magazines where the author describes how he or she pulled off some miraculous feat without any help and, of course, without declaring an emergency.  It is part of our aviation culture that declaring an emergency is something to be avoided at all costs. 

Revealing Our Weaknesses

Maybe it is believed to be a sign of inferior piloting skills, or the fear of retribution from the FAA, or just not wanting anyone to question our decision making ability. Whatever the case, it seems we would rather lose all our limbs than admit we need some help.  Instead of a weakness, knowing when to bring others to assist, is a sign of a mature pilot.  No one would argue that the best pilots have the judgment to know when and how to bring resources to bear at a critical time of flight.

During check rides, I occasionally bring pilots to a point where the situation may extend beyond their abilities or knowledge.  Many are hesitant, no matter how dire the situation, to declare it.  It is always a point of discussion at the end of the flight, either to be reinforced or emphasized as an error.  Just like anything else, it has to be trained until it is second nature.

Why do I find it so important?  Declaring an emergency is like having another pilot in the cockpit; it lessens the workload.  Why waste brain cells and time on making the unnecessary radio calls, checking pubs, or flying protracted procedures.  When you declare an emergency, you get the priority handling needed to cope with that situation.  The controller will clear the airspace around you, and give you as much assistance as possible to get the aircraft down safe.

Practice What You Preach

Now for full disclosure—even though I have lectured on the importance of declaring an emergency for years, I can’t say I always practiced what I preached.  During one flight, I found myself in un-forecast icing conditions.  The ice was slowly accumulating, but I didn’t declare an emergency.  In my coolest, calmest pilot voice, I told the controller I would like a lower altitude when he got a chance because I was starting to pick up ice. 

Fortunately, the controller knew the situation could turn bad real quick.  He told me to descend immediately to an altitude 2000 feet lower and advise status of icing.  I look back and know I was guilty of what I often chastised others for.  I should have declared an emergency.  If the controller hadn’t given me priority handling, the situation could have gotten worse, maybe even unrecoverable.

One of the roadblocks to declaring an emergency may be confusion as to what constitutes one.  The Pilot/Controller Glossary is vague.  The bottom line is that anytime a pilot seriously doubts his position or ability to safely fly the aircraft as planned, an emergency should be declared.  To me, this means if the weather is beyond what was forecast or your equipment’s ability—or isn’t functioning as advertised—let the controllers know. 

Don’t let the situation get to the point where you are working at your limits or the aircraft’s capabilities.  Unless you are in a training environment with controlled conditions, every flight should be well within your skills, and uneventful.

The ATC Perspective

If you talk with air traffic controllers, they would rather you declare an emergency before the situation becomes unmanageable and harder for them to work to a successful conclusion.  In certain instances, controllers may declare an emergency on their own initiative.  Witness stories when the author describes how the controller abbreviates a procedure or talks them into position.  Even if the pilot doesn’t declare an emergency, or thinks they are handling it on their own, they may be receiving the priority handling they need.

It is important to remember that most controllers are not pilots and their knowledge of your operating environment, and certainly your ability, is largely an unknown.

The Air Traffic Controllers Handbook advises the controllers to treat any situation that they think is an emergency, or has the potential to be, as an emergency.  It is the controllers’ option to declare an event an emergency.

The Air Traffic Controllers Handbook advises the controllers to treat any situation that they think is an emergency, or has the potential to be, as an emergency - but a controller can't read your mind.

In these cases the pilot may have to provide written explanation to the FAA.  This shouldn’t be feared.  First, it isn’t that often that a written report is requested, and second, when it is they will not face a violation if their actions are in the interest of safety (FAR Section 91.3(c)).  If I worked for the FAA, and a pilot didn’t declare an emergency in an emergency situation, my first question would be why not.  Talk about poor judgment.

As pilots, we like to be in total control of the aircraft and the situation.  That is not a bad trait—it is what often makes a great pilot.  Declaring an emergency isn’t losing that control, it is being decisive and staying ahead of the aircraft and the situation.  Arguably, some of the accidents discussed in this magazine may have changed if pilots were willing to admit when circumstances were escalating beyond their control.

Jason Smith is a military instructor pilot and flight examiner. He also holds ATP and CFII ratings and is a FAASTeam member.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.

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