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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After I had described the strong smell of fuel in the cockpit, how I had depressurized and descended to 10,000 feet, was breathing with my mouth near the storm window, complained that I couldn’t possibly make it to Kauai and generally told the controller everything except what he needed to hear, he prodded me with, “Sir, you have to say the words.”

“Okay,” I said finally, “I’m declaring an emergency.”

“Roger that,” said the controller. “You’re cleared for any runway. Would you like the equipment?”

It was as simple as that. Once I was on the ground, a Jeep full of Shore Patrol sailors met me and made certain I didn’t leave the vicinity of the airplane while we checked out the leak. Once they verified that the problem was real, they allowed me to fix the leak, refile my flight plan, have a Coke and sandwich and go on my way. They made it clear I wasn’t in trouble, but that I had to leave. Those without a need to know weren’t allowed on Johnston. I did give them my name and pilot’s license number, but I never heard any more about the incident. (Still, I sometimes wonder if somewhere back in Washington, there’s a file with my name on it.)

It’s always difficult to understand why pilots fail to ask for help when they’re “temporarily disoriented” (read “lost”). Again, the mentality seems to be “don’t ask, don’t tell,” either in accidental IFR or with an unknown position. Some pilots would rather drone around in the clouds or search for an airport alone rather than admit their mistakes and request assistance. It’s especially critical when a VFR pilot inadvertently stumbles into IFR conditions without the benefit of proper experience or training.

Most of the time, the famous five C’s (climb, communicate, confess, comply, conserve) may help you out of trouble. Climb to clear any unknown terrain, improve radio range and increase the possibility of a DF steer (should you need one). If the weather is VFR, climbing also may help you see prominent landmarks not visible at low altitude. If you’re in IMC conditions, climbing may allow you to pop out the top so that at least you can more easily maintain wings level.


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