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Distress or Emergency

Declaring an Emergency

Reprinted from the UK Flight Safety Committee’s Focus on Commercial Aviation Safety, Autumn 1999 Issue, with permission. Although nearly identical to Canadian procedures, the following information reflects procedures in the UK. For the specific Canadian application, read your A.I.P. section COM 5.10.

There has always been a reluctance by many pilots to declare an emergency, in spite of the clear advice to do so if the situation warrants. This attitude may have filtered down from the airlines who shun what they see as adverse (and increasingly sensational) publicity when, for example, a "local-standby phase" is declared by ATC. In other cases, pilots can be reluctant to "make a fuss", displaying perhaps a macho attitude in believing they can handle the situation. The thought of having to go through a reporting procedure may also deter some.

When something goes wrong, sometimes our pilot mindset can be such that we believe circumstances do not warrant any outside assistance. A light twin-engine aircraft, for example, is certificated for single-engine performance, and in an engine failure situation it is often hoped that flight can be sustained without incident. However, this and any other type of emergency or reduced performance situation (such as icing) should be advised to ATC so that they understand your predicament and can plan assistance accordingly.

Failure to clearly state the nature of a problem not only prevents ATC from providing assistance, but also (in the worst case) may deprive accident investigators of any leads to explain what led to the burnt-out wreck before them. Remember that there are two levels of communication, distress and urgency.

Distress is defined as being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and requiring immediate assistance (use MAYDAY, pronounced three times in Canada).

Urgency is defined as a condition concerning the safety of an aircraft, or of some person on board or within sight, but which does not require immediate assistance (use PAN, pronounced three times in Canada).

The urgency situation is probably the one which is not advised as often as it should be. If you declare an urgency situation, it is possible that the problem may be resolved (or alleviated) before it becomes a distress situation. If the problem is resolved or a safe landing made, don’t forget to cancel the MAYDAY or PAN.