A student pilot is flying uncomfortably low over wooded hills, sandwiched between clouds above and featureless terrain below. There’s an airstrip somewhere nearby. If the student pilot can find it before low fuel and low light make life difficult, it will be a great relief.
The trainee can’t recall how long he’d flown before noticing that the venerable trainer’s heading indicator wasn’t aligned with the magnetic compass. His freshly charged handheld GPS is sitting on the kitchen table, so no help there.
“Is this an emergency?’
The speaker is the student’s instructor, sitting alongside and observing as the trainee grapples with a scenario the CFI has improvised using the time of day, the marginal weather, and some circumstantial embellishments to devise a powerful lesson about lost procedures.
Not yet, the student responds. But if he can’t find that strip, or get reoriented in 30 minutes, it will be. If light fades, and the scenario’s scant fuel remaining is consumed, an urgent situation will emerge.
Not every emergency is as immediately self-evident as an engine failure or inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions by a noninstrument-rated pilot.
Other scenarios—radio problems on a clear day, for example—are manageable. But an emergency can evolve from lesser evils or warnings ignored.
Then, a not-uncommon mistake is to let hesitancy to declare an emergency—based on an overly dramatic idea of the repercussions—co-opt your decision-making.
In some cases, dwindling options will resolve that conflict: The regulation addressing the responsibility and authority of the pilot in command states that, “In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.”
You deviated? Then it was an emergency.
What tends to fret pilots about calling an emergency by its rightful name is the succeeding portion of that regulation, requiring that the pilot, “upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.”
Don’t put off the best solution to an emergency for fear of FAA paperwork. A pilot who thinks about such things when his or her best airmanship should be on display only makes a bad situation worse.