Whether or not they realize it, most pilots have a very well-developed “Spidey sense.” What’s that, you ask? Spidey sense is derived from the "Spider sense" of the comic book superhero Spiderman. It is generally used to mean a vague but strong sense of something being wrong, dangerous, or suspicious. Even if you weren’t familiar with the urban dictionary meaning of spidey sense, most of us now recognize that we have it.
In flying for example, your spidey sense might trigger during a night flight in a single-engine aircraft when the engine seems to sound a little different, or when going flying after a major annual inspection; the engine analyzer gets extra attention or the airplane just feels “funny.” These examples are of when we feel like something might be wrong, but things in fact are quite normal. Because of the situation, pilots are just more attuned, and perhaps, more inclined to be on the lookout for anything out of the norm.
But what happens when things are normal and your spidey sense kicks in? One such incident happened to me early in my flying career. As a new CFI with only a few hundred hours in my logbook, I was giving instrument instruction to a student and aircraft owner. His airplane was in for maintenance but rather than postpone, we decided to take one of the flight school’s Cessna 172s. This particular airplane was new to the school and neither my student nor I had flown it before. The flight went as planned, and after shooting practice approaches we entered the home field traffic pattern to practice touch and goes. On our second downwind leg, my student said that the flight controls felt “funny.” I said, “OK, I got it,” and I started flying. He was right—the flight controls did feel weird. It took lots of left aileron to keep the airplane flying straight and level. We started our base turn and the situation went from bad to worse. I had nearly full left aileron and about half rudder in to keep the airplane flying level—I had a real fight on my hands to keep control.
I remember thinking at the time, “I don’t want to do this but I suppose I have to.” I keyed the mic and said, “Tower, 172 in the base turn is declaring an emergency. We have a flight control problem and I need immediate clearance to land.” The tower responded, “You’re cleared to land and emergency services are rolling.” After I fought the airplane safely to the runway and slowed to taxi speed, I let go of the yoke and noticed that it rolled hard right. I thought this was strange—there were no air loads on the controls, and the yoke should sit neutral. As I scanned the wing looking for some sort of mechanical problem that would explain this odd flight control behavior, I glanced back inside and noticed that way down on the pedestal there was something I hadn’t seen before in a Cessna 172—an autopilot! Yep, it was on and the heading mode was engaged. I wasn’t dealing with a flight control problem: I was fighting against a rudimentary autopilot that was blindly trying to turn toward an assigned heading in the HSI. Boy did I feel dumb!
I was also worried that since I said the “E” word and declared an emergency there would be repercussions, including the costs associated with the emergency services trucks; the FAA would probably get involved; and there would be reams of paperwork to fill out. I was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case. After shutdown I called the tower and asked if they needed a written report of explanation. The controller said “no” and that was that; nothing else ever came of it.
Why should a pilot declare an emergency? Apart from the obvious benefits of communicating the situation to people on the ground that are trained to help, pilots receive a “get out of jail free card” when it comes to deviations. Once a pilot declares an emergency, FAR 91.3 allows them to “deviate from any rule ... to the extent required to meet the emergency.” The only requirement is that if the administrator asks, the pilot has to submit a written report explaining his or her actions and the reasons that support the deviation. The bottom line: If you need it, use it. Saying the “E” word and declaring an emergency isn’t something to be feared. It’s a tool to be used when the situation dictates. Far too often pilots fail to declare an emergency when the situation clearly calls for it. Some emergencies require immediate action both inside the cockpit and with external controlling agencies. Even if it’s out of an abundance of caution, declaring an emergency is a wise course of action. It’s always better to err on the conservative side: Use the “E” word when required, and exercise the privileges that come with being a pilot in command in order to ensure a safe outcome. After all, it’s in the best interest of safety!
Retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. George “Brain” Perry is senior vice president of the AOPA Foundation's Air Safety Institute.