Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Consequences Of Mayday

If you survive a Mayday, everyone worries about what will happen later. Here’s the real story from a poster boy of Maydays.

The owner in the right seat watched his beautiful, completely refurbished Lance disintegrate before his eyes. We stopped in a cloud of dust. I shouldered him out the right door and grabbed my Icom portable VHF radio on the way out behind him.

Fortunately, the Lance didn't burn despite probably 50 gallons of fuel still in the ferry tank and another 50 in the wings. We stood well away from what was left of the Piper as the dust settled out, wondering the inevitable: what next?

We were probably 400 nm from the nearest city, Addis Ababa, well outside VHF radio range, so the only hope was to reach someone straight up. I keyed the mic of my portable and called, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is N86DL. We've experienced an engine failure and are down in the Ogaden Desert. Does anyone read this transmission?"

In less than 10 seconds, I heard a calm, British-accented voice reply, "November 34DL, this is Gulf Air 165. How may we be of assistance?"

I gave him our position first, then followed up with phone numbers to advise our wives we were okay and finally some information about our survival gear. We spent four days in the African desert before being evacuated to Addis Ababa.

The Ethiopian CAA held an inquiry and determined the accident was caused by the catastrophic failure of the number-two cylinder, a problem that couldn't have been anticipated. The owner did have to pay for search-and-rescue efforts, but only because the Ethiopians had no SAR assets, no aircraft, vehicles or people, and the American Embassy had paid for our extraction using private contractors.

There were no penalties for either of us and no finding of wrongdoing by the Ethiopian authorities.

These were three real emergencies with three different outcomes. The first involved an unknown problem that demanded a Mayday call but wound up resolving itself. In the second, the engine suffered a catastrophic failure, but I was lucky to get the airplane on the ground without further damage or injury. In the third incident, the engine quit completely, and the airplane was pretty well totaled, though no one was injured. None of the three Maydays were judged to be an egregious error worthy of penalty, and no one challenged my right to call for help.

Remember that you'll never be required to meet any standard greater than a determination of reasonable risk if you issue a Mayday. As long as you have a legitimate problem, aren't committing any crimes, didn't make unrealistic assumptions about your flight and haven't violated any aviation regulations, you shouldn't be held to any civil penalties or license restrictions for declaring an emergency.

In fact, even if you have inadvertently violated some reg, the FAA may still choose to ignore your indiscretions or simply request that you fly with an instructor to correct your mistakes.

The point is, don't be afraid to declare an emergency if you feel there's a need. The pilot makes the final determination of what circumstances demand an emergency call. The FAA doesn't specify any guidelines on what is or isn't an emergency. YOU make the decision.


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