Don’t be afraid to declare an emergency if you feel there’s a need. The decision is yours.
It’s a notorious section of the North Atlantic known for high waves and vicious winds. It runs 600 miles from the coast of Iceland southeast past the Faroes and Orkney Islands to Northern Scotland.
I’ve been this way many times before, flying everything from Partenavias, Cheyennes, Conquests and Aerostars to Archers, Mooneys, Centurions and Bonanzas. The weather isn’t always inclement, but icing is a common problem, and the wind is nearly always a factor, most often out of the northwest at 20 to 50 knots below 10,000 feet, with stronger winds up high. Better hope you’re flying south.
Once, many years ago, when I was leading a group of three new P-68C Partenavias back from Naples, Italy, to Santa Paula, Calif., the sky became threatening and overcast, gradually pushing our undeiced airplanes down to 2,000 feet to minimize the possibility of airframe icing.
To our amazement, we spotted a small sailboat, perhaps a 30-footer, tacking bravely into the wind toward Iceland, rolling and pitching in heavy swells. All three of us descended to 50 feet above the Atlantic and gave the solo sailor an appropriate buzz job and wing wag, as if to acknowledge how much tougher he had it than we did, snug in our warm cockpits with an engine on each wing to protect us from evil. He smiled and waved back, perhaps happy for the temporary company in the middle of a treacherous ocean.
This time, I’m grateful to be tracking the opposite direction with the wind on the tail. I’m flying a new Maule M7-260 mounted on amphibious floats. Flying up the East Coast from Georgia to Bangor, Maine, I had great fun visiting a dozen lakes and even the Hudson River, all calm, flat waterways for the big Maule.
The king-sized floats wouldn’t be an advantage landing on today’s ocean. As I look down from 9,000 feet, I can see whitecaps everywhere and surf rolling endlessly toward the British Isles. Today wouldn’t be a good day to ditch.
As if on cue, the big 260 hp Lycoming out front staggers and goes rough. The Maule hesitates with the loss of power, and what seemed simple a few minutes ago has now become complex. I try full carb heat, switch back to the aircraft fuel tanks, enrich and lean the mixture, use more or less power or rpm—nothing seems to help. I flip the audio selector to com 2, always set on 121.5 over the ocean, and broadcast, “Any station, this is N3274B. Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Do you read on 121.5?”
Almost immediately, a suitably calm voice from a British Airways jet comes back with, “November flight, this is Speedbird 34, we read you loud and clear. What is the nature of your emergency?” Scottish Control also answers, weak and broken, and I explain to everyone listening that I’m losing power and turning off my original track toward Wick, U.K., and heading for Stornoway, now 197 nm distant according to both Garmins. I read out my exact position, persons on board, airspeed, altitude, heading and fuel state. Speedbird 34 relays to Scottish Control, and they advise they’ve notified search and rescue.
The engine is regular rough, as I descend toward the angry ocean, hoping warmer air down low will grant me a reprieve.
Shortly after I level at 3,000 feet, a British Hawker SAR jet comes up on frequency and advises his ETA is 11 minutes. The engine improves slightly as I gain on Stornoway, then goes semi-smooth a few minutes later, coughing irregularly, but definitely improved.
The Hawker forms up and begins to fly wide circles around me. As the distance to Stornoway drops through 100 nm on the GPS, the Hawker pilot advises a rescue helicopter will be taking over SAR duty so he can depart.
A short time later, I spot a twin-rotor helicopter arcing around to parallel my course on the left side. The Hawker pilot wishes me luck and rockets up into the overcast.
Power is smooth now, as the helo escorts me toward the Scottish coast, barely becoming visible straight ahead. Down to 1,000 feet above the water, we go feet dry together and land in loose formation, and I shut down in front of the FBO.
After filling out a few forms, I’m told I’m free to go. The engine checks out perfectly on the ground, and the engineer volunteers that it must have been carb ice, though carb heat was the first corrective measure I applied. Maybe a bad case of ice beyond the limits of the system, he suggests. Maybe some other transient phenomenon. We’ll never know.
Whatever the cause, I never received a bill for services from anyone. There was no board of inquiry, no one pointing fingers or suggesting I had overreacted.
Flashback to 1989. I was returning from the San Francisco Bay Area in my Mooney on a blistering hot July day. The temperature had been sizzling all the way down the coast, and as I descended into the Los Angeles Basin, it climbed even higher. CHTs and oil temps had been running near redline despite a super-rich mixture and open cowl flaps.
Every pilot’s nightmare is a total engine failure over the center of a major metropolitan area. That’s exactly what happened to me. I had Long Beach in sight when the prop suddenly ran away and screamed up to 3,200 rpm before I could even think about bringing the control back.
Immediately after that, there was a loud bang out front, and the prop seized and stopped faster than I thought possible. I touched the starter to see if there was any chance of a restart, and the prop was frozen in place. There was nothing below but houses, freeways and shopping centers.
I had already switched to Long Beach tower frequency, and after the big bang, I punched the mic button and announced, “Long Beach, Mooney 65V has a Mayday. The engine just failed. I’m heading for Compton.”
I turned 90 degrees left toward the short runway at KCPM and heard Long Beach tower vectoring an LAPD helicopter to assist. I had a glimpse of the helicopter hovering on the north side of the airport as I tried to gauge my approach from the south.
Somehow, despite staring nervously at a stopped prop blade for several minutes, I was amazed that the Mooney found its way to the runway, barely clearing the airport fence and touching down as if I knew what I was doing (highly unlikely). The helicopter landed behind me on the ramp as I rolled off the runway, shut down and one of the officers walked over to make certain I was uninjured. He watched me clean up the seat for a moment, then went back to the helicopter and resumed his patrol.
It turned out the engine had thrown a rod and was basically history. Again, there were a few papers to fill out, but no one seemed too upset about my Mayday except me. The FAA decided I had done nothing worth rebuking, so there was no consequence to my Mayday.
Finally, in 1998, I had contracted to purchase, refurbish and deliver a Piper Lance from Santa Monica, Calif., to Nairobi, Kenya. The owner had flown in from Nairobi to make the trip, and we had managed to negotiate the first 9,500 nm without incident. On Easter Sunday, we were on the last leg of the two-week trip, from Djibouti on the Gulf of Aden to Nairobi in the heart of Africa.
The big 300 hp Lycoming went rough as we were flying across the Ogaden Desert, an expanse of rocks, sand, acacia trees and cobras along the southern border of Ethiopia with Kenya. The EGT for the number-two cylinder suddenly began to drop off the bottom of the scale on the engine analyzer. Engine roughness lasted only a minute or two before the Lycoming turned to stuttering and coughing; then, finally, quit completely.
This time, I knew the outcome was seriously in doubt. There was nothing below but irregular, rocky desert, no roads, nothing that would pass for a runway. I chose the only semi-flat space I could find and landed the Lance as gently as I could. The right gear caught in a rut shortly after touchdown and immediately separated from the aircraft, dropping the right wingtip to the dirt; then, the left gear lodged in another rut and the airplane slewed hard left and went sliding sideways into the acacia trees, wrapping the prop back over the cowling and breaking the engine off the firewall.
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.