While declaring an emergency sounds like a last resort, pilots should instead see it as just another resource with which to handle unusual or hazardous situations.
It can be difficult to think for any length of time on flight emergencies, even though we work in an industry that constantly orients itself toward preventing them. For many in the aviation community and outside of it, the thought of a “flight emergency” immediately brings to mind thoughts of very obvious trouble: fires, mechanical failures, emergency landings, or similar. But as a pilot, it is important to remember that “declaring an emergency” does not necessarily imply that everything is on fire. Emergency declaration, when used responsibly, is a key tool for a pilot who needs to safely land in an unusual situation.
Everyone from the FAA to AOPA and beyond tries to emphasize that emergency declaration, including the use of PAN-PAN, is nothing to be afraid of. Even the phrase, “PAN PAN” comes from a French nautical indication that something has broken down, but isn’t dire. It is merely a request for a bit more urgency and attention so that a somewhat worrisome problem does not turn into a desperate one.
And yet, many pilots don’t declare, even in situations that would clearly call for it. Why? Hazardous pilot attitudes such as machismo or “get-there-itis” may keep a pilot from making calls or deviations that would induce a wound the pilot pride. This is especially true for veteran pilots, who may feel confident they can handle a situation that has not spiraled out of control…yet. When the spiral finally happens, it’s often too late to save the situation. Remember that playing things safe and taking extra precautions will almost always result in safer outcomes. Plus, anecdotal evidence consistently supports the FAA’s stance of not troubling pilots who take extra safety precautions if a situation looks hairy, even if the problem turns out to be a small one. There’s no need to be afraid of paperwork.
So, when to declare an emergency? There are a number of examples, and no way to encompass them all, but here are a few common ones:
- Engine failure
- Flight control failure
- Inadvertent flight into icing
- Inadvertent flight into thunderstorms
- Low fuel
- Loss of pressurization
- Wind shear
- Loss of situational awareness
- Inadvertent IMC
Again, do not look at this as anything close to an exhaustive list. Emergency declaration should be used in the event that you have an unusual flight situation that requires you to have priority on frequencies or assistance from ATC, ground, or other facilities.
Though we want to emphasize that you should not be afraid to declare even in situations that aren’t immediately life-threatening, it’s important too that you aviate first, then navigate, then communicate. Make sure you have control of the aircraft and where it is headed before you start talking. When you do reach out, focus on who you are, what’s happening, and what you want:
- Identify your aircraft and type
- Declare the emergency and state its nature
- Tell them what you want
ATC may ask for more details, depending on the situation. Offer them if you can spare your focus, but feel free to tell them you’ll get back to them if there are more pressing problems to address or if safely flying the aircraft is occupying all of your attention.
Emergency declaration isn’t a tool you want to have to remove from your box very often, but it is one that pilots could afford to use a bit more frequently in the interest of safety. Don’t let a hazardous attitude stop you from using it when you really need it.
- AOPA: Declaring an emergency
- Code 77000: Declaring an emergency - abnormal procedures
- Emergency demystified
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