Plane & Pilot
Wednesday, June 1, 2005

The Stigma Of Mayday

As reluctant as we all can be to declare an emergency, there are times when nothing else makes sense

Face it, no one likes to admit mistakes. Probably because of the Superman syndrome, pilots are especially reluctant to acknowledge errors to authority figures. Aviators are even more reticent to confess to dangerous mistakes if they have passengers on board.
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Similarly, unless you’ve done something incredibly stupid or illegal, emergency search-and-rescue (SAR) services are most often examples of your tax dollars at work. The U.S. government and those of most other International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) signatory countries don’t normally bill for emergency services. They may, however, impose special requirements on pilots flying in their airspace. (Transport Canada, for example, requires an equipment inspection and that pilots pass a written and aural test before allowing them to operate single-engine aircraft across the Atlantic.)

If you’re flying VFR underneath, the clouds come down and you’re forced to climb through an overcast to on top without a clearance, that’s an emergency. Technically, you’re not in violation of the FARs, although you could have a lot of explaining to do as to how you got into that situation in the first place. If you have the time and know your position, you should let someone know what you’re planning before you ascend so a controller can clear the airspace above.

The more common mistake is the opposite—becoming trapped on top. You’re flying along above scattered clouds when suddenly the undercast turns broken, then overcast before you can think about descending. If you’re not instrument-trained, this can be a definite emergency, and it comprises a large portion of the FAA’s maydays.

By far, the major area of emergency aid lent by the FAA is related to lost pilots, roughly half of all “assists.” Weather problems account for another 10%, and mechanical problems—rough engines, malfunctioning systems and avionics—comprise another 10%. Perhaps surprisingly, low-fuel situations account for only 5% of assists. Oftentimes, low fuel may be combined with other factors, such as an uncertain position or VFR on top.

The best ad-vice is call for help before you face a situation beyond your control. Excluding some me-chanical as well as electrical problems, emergencies rarely happen in a rush. They take time to evolve. If you’re smart enough to catch them early, you may be able to solve the problem before there is one.


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