Mayday! What is an emergency?

If you read through the available information on emergencies, there is but one conclusion. Everything is covered, several times, in the millions of words written about this but much, even most, of it revolves around the legalities. Logic suggests that if you are up to your ears in gators, what counts are results and if you get a good result you can think about the legal part later.

Why would a pilot declare an emergency? One reason would be to get help from an air traffic controller. He can do things like tell of nearby airports or give vectors, and, if you are IFR, he can make sure there is no conflict with other traffic if you are going to stray from a clearance. Another would be to tell someone else about a problem you are having with yourself or with the airplane. That would perk things up and have assistance on standby should conditions worsen.

Logic suggests that when there is an accident, some type of emergency preceded the accident. Yet no emergency is declared before most accidents and even when a pilot tells of a problem, he doesn’t say one of the magic words. (Mayday works as well as Emergency.) In most cases, a pilot really doesn’t elaborate on a problem if one exists. I’d add that if a controller thinks things are going badly he can consider that an emergency exists and take appropriate action.

A single-engine turboprop Evolution was lost recently. The tower had cleared the pilot to land, but he replied that he wanted to cross at midfield and enter a left downwind. That was fine with the tower controller.

Then: Alright sir, I’m having, still having, an electrical issue. I had one on Friday and I’m…. I’m about to go dead. So I am just going to cross over and make left…….

Evolution crash scene
The pilot didn’t say anything about an emergency, but this is the result.

There was no further transmission and the aircraft crashed right after that. From the pictures with the news account, it appeared that the airplane hit hard without a lot of forward speed. If that was the case, the NTSB will call it a stall/spin accident.

To me, it appears that whatever the electrical problem was, it, in itself, would not have caused a loss of control unless there was some sudden and disastrous development. But the power of even a simple distraction can be great and there is a long history of distracted pilots losing control of airplanes.

Nothing indicates that the pilot thought he was having a full-blown emergency. He did not say anything to that effect. Nothing indicates that the controller thought he had an emergency, either, but one did indeed exist and the airplane crashed. That is a pretty typical example of an undeclared emergency.

It could be that some pilots just like to be cool about any problem they might be having. Certainly going ballistic over something that may or may not be a threat is not going to solve whatever the problem happens to be.

Another accident illustrated what can be described as an unfortunate interaction between a pilot and controller in a true emergency situation. As you read this, remember that a pilot having an emergency can do whatever he feels is necessary to get safely on the ground and, in reality, only the pilot’s decisions will make that happen.

The pilot was flying a Cessna 210N and soon after takeoff on runway 2L at Dekalb-Peachtree (PDK) near Atlanta he told the controller he wanted to return to the airport. The controller asked if he needed any assistance and the pilot just said that he was coming back inbound. Then there was a partially blocked transmission: I’ve got smoke in the cockpit and the gear won’t go down.

Because there was no N-number with that transmission the controller asked who had the smoke and the gear that wouldn’t go down. The pilot replied with his number and the controller offered him a straight-in approach to runway 20L, the longer parallel to the runway he used for departure. That opposite-direction runway meant he had but to make a 180 and return to the airport. Certainly the controller had offered the best possible solution to this pilot.

The pilot reported that he had the runway in sight but the controller could see that he wasn’t heading for it and offered options. The pilot then said he wanted to enter on a left base leg for 2R. Then he said he didn’t think the gear was down. The controller asked the pilot to say his request. He replied: uh, I think I would like to get the gear down and I still got this smoke. The controller asked if he would like to do a fly-by on 2R to check for the gear and the pilot replied that he would do that.

At this time only about six minutes had elapsed since the airplane took off. From the report it appears that no emergency had been declared but the controller had called to place the fire department on Alert II status which requires the fire trucks to leave the station and proceed to the emergency standby position on the airport. This alert status would cover an airplane with a condition like an engine fire or landing gear problems. So, this event was being treated as an emergency.

When the airplane was on base leg for the fly-by, the controller told the pilot that the landing gear appeared to be down and asked for the pilot’s request. The pilot replied: I’ll land if it looks down… looks to feels up to me.” And, while that was the last transmission from the pilot, the story didn’t end there.

Cessna 210 landing gear
A landing gear failure is a problem, but it need not be fatal.

The controller cleared the airplane to land but 26 seconds later told the pilot: …I’m not sure whether the gear is down. Go around. Seconds later the controller told the pilot that it didn’t look like the gear was locked in place and that he saw smoke coming from the cockpit.

In the meanwhile, the emergency equipment was in position and later reported that they could see the airplane approaching 2R and that the airplane was trailing smoke and the landing gear was clearly in an abnormal position.

According to the controller, after the go-around from 2R the airplane made a 270 degree turn to the right and approached runway 27 as if to attempt a landing on that runway. The controller then told the pilot that there were vehicles on 27 and asked if he could go around. There was no response.

The person in charge of the emergency response was a pilot and reported that the airplane seemed to almost stall on the go-around, was flying erratically through the turn, and appeared too high to land on 27. The rescue vehicles were on 27 but, as they saw what was developing, they got off the runway before being told to do so by the controller. The airplane passed above and behind the vehicles and then turned left and crashed. They got there in 10 seconds and applied foam, but were unable to save the pilot who was on the right side of the airplane and did not appear to have been wearing a seat belt or shoulder harness at impact.

Only about five minutes elapsed between the time the pilot first reported smoke and the airplane crashed.

The NTSB’s probable cause: The failure of the flex hydraulic line and the chaffing of an electrical line under the pilot seat that resulted in an inflight fire. The pilot’s inflight decision to continue flight with known airplane deficiencies.

I guess the NTSB was faulting the pilot for not putting the smoke at the top of the list and ignoring the landing gear. I would agree with them on that because a fire in an airplane sends an absolute message about getting on the ground as quickly as possible.

That aside, a good practice is to go through what if exercises as you fly along or even as you relax by the pool or in front of a fire with a beverage of choice.

While this event was unfolding an unidentified pilot called and suggested that the pilot pull the landing gear motor circuit breaker. That was logical. Any pilot who has flown a 210 much knows that the shut-off switch for the electrically-operated hydraulic system power pack can malfunction. When it does, the power pack continues to run after the gear is up and stowed (or down and locked) and if allowed to run long enough the electric motor will burn out. So, 210 pilots know where that circuit breaker is located any many have had occasion to pull it.

The pilot at PDK had a different and more serious problem. The fire was under the pilot’s seat, beneath the floorboard and was not caused by the power pack.

Fortunately, inflight fires are rare in private airplanes and when they do occur it appears that most can be handled by getting on the ground as quickly as possible.

Smoke in cockpit
Smoke in the cockpit is almost always an emergency.

If you had smoke and it seemed to be getting worse, would you hold out for an airport or would you settle for an impromptu landing site that appeared to be reasonably adequate? That is a good what if question.

Years ago one of the pilots flying a DC-3 advised ATC, I think I’d like to turn around, head for Texarkana here. I’ve got a little problem.

The pilot was given a vector and advised of closest airports. Shortly after that the pilot stated he would be unable to reach an airport and that he had smoke in the cockpit. Prior to that, they had been unable to start the cabin heater and after repeated attempts, smoke entered the cabin and became dense.

While landing in a field, only about five minutes after the pilot first told ATC of the problem, the aircraft hit wires and a pole and then continued into trees where it was extensively damaged by impact and fire.

The crew was able to escape through the cockpit windows but none of the seven passengers survived. One was Ricky Nelson. That day, a little more of the music died.

No emergency had been declared but any forced landing is considered an emergency by air traffic control so one did exist. The controller did what he could, there was controversy about the fire, and the pilot in command was faulted by the NTSB for not following emergency procedures.

Perhaps the primary message from the accident at PDK and that one is that in the case of an inflight fire the pilot might have but a few minutes to resolve the problem and job one is to get the burning airplane on the ground and get out of it.

The most likely emergency that has an easier solution would relate to a system or to the power. Either can fail with systems the most likely culprit.

I had a lot of vacuum and electrical system problems in my P210 and had to address them on twenty-five or thirty occasions. I didn’t consider any of those events to be emergencies simply because I recognized the problem and could deal with it all by myself. I did always tell the controller what had failed and what I wanted to do about it and he usually cleared me to do whatever I asked for without any further ado. Only one electrical problem made smoke in the cockpit and that was of short duration. The alternator went and something in the process caused the circuit breaker to fry which made a bit of smoke with an electric smell that dissipated quickly.

On the other hand, vacuum system failures have put pilots in pretty drastic emergency situations. In some, the pilot has declared an emergency, in some the controller treated it as an emergency, and in some the vacuum failure was found during the accident investigation. Sadly, most accidents that come after vacuum system or instrument failures follow a loss of control. Once that cat is out of the bag, the chance of recovery is from slim to none and is totally in the hands of the pilot.

If a pilot feels like a system failure is serious, it would be best not to hesitate about declaring an emergency. Doing so may or may not lead to a blizzard of paperwork but that shouldn’t be a factor if help is needed. A calming word from the ground might just help a pilot keep his cool and retain control of the airplane.

A power failure is considered an emergency and while a controller can help with word on nearby airports and vectors, only the pilot can determine whether there is enough altitude available to reach one of those airports. With a GPS available in almost every airplane flying, the pilot has that information at his fingertips, too, and it could be better information than would be available from a controller.

Failed attitude indicator
What if that attitude indicator fails? Are you prepared?

How so? If there is an instrument approach to the runway you are going to head for, it can be loaded and the GPS will give distance to the end of the runway. GPS distance to the airport in general will be to the airport reference point which is near the middle of the airport. Information given by a controller would likely be to the airport in general.

What if? I liked to fly along and look at nearest airports and go through the mental exercise of making a plan to fly to them with no power. My P210 would glide for a mile and a half for each thousand feet of altitude but that was in calm wind conditions which almost never exist. I thought it was rather fun to look at the upwind airports and the downwind airports and see which would work the best.

One thing we know for sure is that while it is possible to hurry a descent, there is no way to stretch a glide. There is a definite end-point and the exercise is to not reach that point before reaching the runway.

One interesting decision would come if your calculations showed that you were going to come up just a bit short in an attempt to make the end of a runway. Say the runway is in sight but the numbers don’t quite work and there is what looks a suitable closer spot for an off-airport landing. It would be a hard decision to make because the choice would be between landing on nice pavement and landing on whatever is there and then getting those new sneakers muddy walking out. That’s a hard but easy choice.

If a pilot is flying a twin and one engine fails, is that an emergency? Air traffic control would probably consider it as such and would fully expect a pilot to report the failure. What then? The FAA has gone after pilots who, instead of flying to the nearest suitable airport and landing, flew on to what they considered a more convenient airport. I don’t think a pilot could be faulted for flying a little farther for a longer runway, or an airport in more hospitable terrain, but that would be about the most that would be acceptable.

When I was giving multiengine instruction, I always had students fly an approach and land with one prop feathered. I wanted them to experience that under carefully-controlled conditions so if it ever happened for real, with innocent passengers on board, they wouldn’t be doing something they had never done before. But I was told by one tower that if I did that at their airport, they would consider it an emergency and call out the equipment. Never mind, I could always find an airport without a tower to practice that.

Landing gear problems are considered to be emergencies but they do take all forms. The one related earlier, with the related fire, was about as bad as it might get in a private airplane but there might be other considerations in different airplanes. I was once told of jet fighter traffic descending through my altitude with its pilot also descending through my altitude under a parachute. He had ejected and I later learned that he did so because that was SOP for that airplane if the landing gear would not extend.

Most of us don’t have that choice. I would make a bet on one thing, though, and it’s a safe bet because there wouldn’t me any meaningful numbers to prove or disprove this. I’d bet that there are more inadvertent gear-up landings than there are landings when the gear is not fully down and locked because of some malfunction in the system. I don’t think a gear-up landing could be considered an emergency when nobody knew it was going to happen until the airplane was sliding along on its belly.

Actually, many gear-up landings don’t even qualify as an accident under the NTSB’s definition of significant damage. I did some research on this once that suggested gear-up landings were more damaging in high than low wing airplanes.

I flew for 57 years and 20,000 hours without declaring an emergency. But I did always encourage pilots to say one of the magic words if he felt like he needed whatever help might be available in case something was going awry.

Which leads me to the student pilot on a solo cross-country who got lost, called a controller for help, and got vectored to the destination. A little while later, the student called ground control and said he was taxiing out for takeoff and might get lost so would need vectors back to home base. Whatever it takes.

7 Comments

  • I’ve been an instructor for almost 50 years. I’m always a bit surprised when pilots express a reluctance to declare an emergency. What is the basis for that attitude? Many times they say there is too much paperwork involved. So what! I have declared an emergency a number of times and never was asked to do any paperwork.

    In my opinion it is very simple. If you have to refer to the emergency section of your checklist, it’s an emergency. The manufacturer determined that. Declare the emergency, land the airplane.

  • After 62 years and 22,000 flying hours, I’ve never had to declare an emergency. I recall one flight, however, in a Moony Executive out of Dulles for Boston. On our climb out northward, my wife had hung her purse on the door handle, and the door had popped open. The rush of air scared her to death, and I called the tower asking for a return to the airport. I couldn’t close and latch the door without tearing the handle off. I told the tower of the problem and returned to the airport.

    When I operated the gear down handle, an alarm went off. I asked the tower to verify that the gear was down and locked. The gear appearing normal to them. They asked if I wanted a foamed runway? No, I didn’t want foam. They did alert the emergency vehicles, and almost immediately the airport was flooded with flashing red lights and scurrying vehicles. Whenever the RPMs fell below 1,600, that danged alarm went off. I decided it had to be a problem with the gear circuit alarm, and proceeded to land with no problem except for the racket made by the gear alarm and the rush of air around the unlatched door.

    Maintenance took care of the gear problem, and I took care of the other. I considered the gear problem a nuisance, but not an emergency.

  • The student in your closing paragraph had lots of common sense. I bet he demanded additional navigation training from his CFI. His ADM was poor as well, after getting lost once around that field the correct ADM was to board a taxi cab home.
    Having said that, every time I read the final report of a fatal accident I question myself, what would my students do ? Did I do my duty as their mentor to prevent disaster ?
    My work and responsibility is not complete until the last safe flight of every old bold pilot I have ever given dual instruction and or evaluation. If I did a good job with my students then they will positively influence others in their piloting career.
    As someone wiser than me put it: ” For pilots, mother nature gives the punishment first and the lesson later”.
    Dear Mr. D.C. the way you write is very inspiring and in my view every sensible pilot gets a reality check for safety and awareness. ” This can happen to me, what do I do know to stay safe”….practice practice practice.
    Thank you Sir !!!!

  • In a nutshell, you should declare an emergency if the situation requires you to deviate from your current clearance (such as an assigned altitude), violate some airspace restriction, put someone’s life in danger (including your own) or otherwise put you in jeopardy of violating FAA rules or regulations.

    An onboard system failure, not meeting the above criteria, is no reason to get the system involved with your problem. The distraction of explaining the situation to someone on the ground, who can do nothing about it, is dangerous.

    In my own case, I once experienced an engine failure three hours into a four hour cross-country over the Cumberland Gap. I was IFR above a broken undercast and announced the failure to ATC. The controller asked if I wanted to declare an emergency. I said no, but he could help by calling the State Patrol and tell them I was landing on U.S. Highway 58 (which I could see through a break in the clouds). According to my GPS, there was no airport within reasonable gliding distance.

    The controller said he would, asked the usual question about souls-on-board (me and my wife -he already had the type a/c) and then moved two other aircraft he was working to another frequency, leaving me alone on the current one.

    I landed on the highway without any dings and shortly the State Patrol showed-up and we filled out their report. I called the local FSDO to report the incident and the agent taking the call said if there was no damage or injuries he didn’t need a formal report, anyway he was busy with a fatality situation.

    If an incompetent controller had stated for some reason that I must “maintain altitude due to lower traffic” – then I would have announced “Unable, declaring an emergency”.

    Otherwise, there was nothing to gain in so doing.

    Later, I called the ATC center and told the supervisor I appreciated the competency of the controller.

    BTW – The cause was a complete failure of the infamous Dual Magneto – Getting the plane airborne off the highway again is another story 🙂

  • I recently was nearing the end of a two hour flight to the Dallas area, where I was dropping my Ercoupe off, to be picked up by the AP-previous owner for a couple of issues-one of which was an oil leak under high pressure. About 15 minutes before landing, at 5500 and under radar services, I got a brief whiff of smoke-definitely burning oil smell.
    My first reaction was to throttle back a little-2450 down to about 2200-and check my device for the nearest airport which happened to be Ennis, 15 miles away. Out of glide range but I still had power. I began my turn then checked my instruments.
    Oil temp was unchanged at 180. Pressure remained in the center of the arc. The smoke and smell had come and gone in an instant. Engine running smooth. And my destination was only about six minutes further than the field I had selected to deviate to.
    So I turned back on course and landed without further incident.
    BUT, when the AP took off later that evening on the way to his base in Oklahoma, about eight minutes into his climbout the cabin filled with smoke and his chase plane reported he was trailing smoke. Obviously, much more serious than my incident. He diverted to a near by field.

    I have run this through my mind constantly since it happened, questioning myself and my decision to continue. Some people would advise to land the second I smelled smoke. But, with my destination only a few minutes further than the nearest field, and with no further symptoms I’m not sure I made the wrong call.
    I’m open to critique.

    • Sounds like a number of issues here.
      Oil leaks, oil burning by hot exhaust and the cabin smoke indicates unsealed firewall and or cabin heat/ air vents.
      What was the diagnosis after safe landing ?
      Did you report the problem encountered ?

  • Chris, it was an Ercoupe. I was flying with the canopy open. So it really wasn’t an issue with cabin heat air vents. But that’s also probably the reason why the smoke and odor was so brief. I haven’t heard back from the AP yet. He flew it safely home after his emergency landing. No diagnosis yet.

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