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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A few years back, I was ferrying a Maule M7-260 on Wipline amphibious floats from the factory in Moultrie, Ga., to Glasgow, Scotland. On the final day of the trip, I launched early out of Reykjavik, Iceland, for Glasgow. Two and a half hours and 250 nm out, the engine began to run slightly rough. I tried carb heat, leaning more or less, adding or reducing throttle, switching back to the main tanks, switching on the fuel pump. Nothing helped. The clouds were descending toward the water and so was I in an attempt to stay out of the ice. Dropping through 2,500 feet, I finally decided that I had had enough, so I switched to 121.5 MHz and put out a mayday call to anyone on the frequency. The engine was becoming progressively rattier. A British Airways 777 was overhead and relayed my mayday to Scottish Control.

Within about 30 minutes, a Lockheed Jetstar joined up with my little Maule, making huge circles around me at 1,000 MSL. We were both barely beneath the clouds as I struggled on toward Stornoway, Scotland. The engine continued to run rough, but it didn’t seem to be getting any worse. As I closed with Scotland, a large SAR helicopter formed up with me, and the Lockheed waggled his wings and returned to base. The SAR folks confirmed there was a swimmer aboard the chopper in case I went into the water. (The fact that the Maule was on floats was no comfort, as winds on the water were about 30 knots, and the waves were running 20 feet at the crests.)

As the northern coast of Scotland came into sight ahead, the engine began to smooth out. By the time I crossed the beach, the Lycoming was functioning normally and the weather began to lift. The helicopter landed with me and followed me to the ramp. The media had two hours to prepare for my arrival, so I spent the next two hours on local and BBC-TV.

The airplane went into the shop, and the mechanic didn’t find anything wrong. Yes, that did make me feel like an idiot, but the problem had been real enough for two hours.

I maydayed again on a flight from Japan to Germany via the Pacific. After transiting through Guam and Majuro, I was on the 2,000 nm leg to Honolulu in a late-model Mirage when a ferry tank began to leak and fill the cabin with avgas fumes. As it happened, I was just coming up on Johnston Island, 700 nm southwest of Honolulu. In those days, Johnston was a top-secret U.S. Navy base, but “mayday” was the magic word for permission to land. Again, I tried to dance around declaring an emergency until the controller made it clear what was necessary.


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