The E-Word

When to declare an emergency

November 1, 2005

It must be the whole Big Brother thing, complete with federal agencies and badges and questions and answers and paperwork, that, just with the way people say the word, makes you think the duration of your life could be spent filling out forms, by hand, probably in triplicate and with not enough space in which to write. In the old days, you might have thought I was discussing the IRS. Instead, this is about declaring an emergency while flying.

Certain obvious events come to mind that we can all agree constitute an in-flight emergency: an engine failure, an engine fire (which will probably lead to a failure or shutdown), smoke in the cockpit, heavy ice, or a full bladder next to an empty water bottle with a missing cap. Except when already talking to air traffic control, we've been taught the proper procedure is to dial in 121.5 MHz on the radio and 7700 on the transponder and declare the emergency. If you are not already talking to ATC, using 121.5 and the 7700 transponder code will ensure that you will be talking to the nearest facility immediately, which will render whatever assistance is possible.

But what if you are in a situation in flight that is getting worse, but you don't know if it can be construed as an emergency? A good example is rapidly changing weather. Several years ago, I was a first officer on a flight from Orlando to New Orleans, on a route that parallels the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. We were unable to accept a more direct route because we were not equipped for overwater operations more than 50 miles from shore.

We knew before we left that there was going to be a high probability of bad weather along the route, as there was a line of storms west of New Orleans, as well as a separate line already over the Gulf. As we flew toward our destination, we found ourselves dodging developing storms and watching a line form to the north of our course; we flew around most of the weather, and some of it we could climb over. At one point, we found ourselves needing to deviate to the south, over the water, 10 to 15 miles. To the right was a well-developed series of cells, all too high to climb over. In front of us, we could see several cells building, the white of the clouds churning furiously as the moisture was carried aloft. On the radar, we could see the intensity of the inner storm getting stronger as the storm rapidly exceeded our altitude. This was clearly something we did not want to penetrate, and we had no intentions of doing so.

Since this was my leg, the captain was working the radio, and when he finally was able to get a word in on a very busy center frequency, he requested a turn that would give us about 30 miles of clearance. This was intended to not only avoid the rough ride, but also to minimize the risk of a severe hail encounter. To our surprise, the controller denied our request. She said something about a turn not being acceptable for her, and said we could turn right instead. That was not an option, and it was reiterated to her. She again stated that we could not turn left. In fact, she said, we had to turn right. The captain told her that if she was going to try to make us turn any way but left, we would be forced to declare an emergency and make a left turn to a heading of our choosing, for as long as we deemed necessary. The gravity of the situation finally made it across, and we were allowed to deviate as necessary. Fortunately, we had started the whole process early, so we probably were no closer than 20 to 25 miles from the storm, but what if we had waited?

And what if we had declared an emergency? Then what? Once the pilot in command (PIC) declares an emergency, he or she has the discretion to deviate from the federal aviation regulations to the extent necessary to rectify the situation. In our case, we would have flown around the storm, resumed normal navigation, and then declared that the emergency was over and that we were resuming normal flight. The controller might have asked us to make a phone call after we landed, but the odds are that very little would have been required, although completing a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System report would have been wise just to cover all the bases.

An emergency is defined in the Aeronautical Information Manual as "a distress or urgency situation." A distress is defined as "a condition of being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance," while an urgency is defined as "a condition of being concerned about safety and of requiring timely but not immediate assistance; a potential distress condition." You, as the PIC, need to be cognizant of when a series of events has crossed the threshold to become a bona fide emergency. It might be something simple, such as getting lost (an urgent condition), or something more complex, like an engine failure (a distress condition).

But whatever the event is, you cannot let a fear of criticism prevent you from taking the steps necessary to safely get you on the ground. Most of the time, when you declare an emergency, the remainder of the flight will be flown in that regime. However, it is possible that an emergency can be a short-term event, such as the weather situation described above. Another example might be an encounter with icing that you cannot shed for a while. You may find yourself descending and slowing out of your control, but if you shed the ice because of warmer air or some other reason, you may be able to resume normal flight and cancel the emergency.

Sometimes an event transpires so quickly that you just don't have time to declare an emergency, but you need to treat it as such and convey it accordingly to those on the ground. I had a passenger once who went into seizures and a state of unconsciousness that included a loss of certain body functions. We were only 20 minutes from landing, and because of the need to describe what was going on to the controllers, we never actually declared an emergency. Nor did we begin to call ourselves a lifeguard flight, although we technically were. There were several minutes' worth of calls to be made to our company and the controllers, and while we never uttered the E-word, we were handled as such.

The simplest way to decide if you have an emergency, especially one that might not include the oh-so-obvious engine, propeller, or airframe compromise, is to ask yourself if you are feeling overwhelmed or panicky, or unable to handle the situation without the help of air traffic control. If so, then go ahead and declare an emergency. All too often, pilots don't declare one when they should, and they deprive themselves of the resources available. There is no reason to feel shame in doing so, and there likely will be little or no paperwork to fill out. You may be asked to call the FAA's flight standards district office or local control facility, but usually just to provide data and information, not to question whether you made the right decision.

An emergency does not have to be a time when immediate help is needed. It can require "timely but not immediate assistance." That gets forgotten too often. Don't let something urgent deteriorate to distressful before asking for help. That just makes the flight unnecessarily stressful.


Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a Canadair Regional Jet captain.