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Declaring an Emergency

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Freight Dog

Well-known member
Nov 26, 2001
I read somewhere how "a pilot did not want to declare an emergency to avoid the paperwork." Supposedly, this guy lost an engine in a Cessna and was high enough to make the field, and "not wanting to deal with paperwork" was his reason for not declaring an emergency. I heard this from many other people, and I'm wondering what the hell are the CFI's teaching these days??

My CFI taught me that if in doubt... declare an emergency. At all of my 135 jobs, if in problem, declare emergency.

A few months ago, I was an FO on the flight where we declared an emergency as a precautionary measure and diverted. The only "paperwork" was an irregularity report which was complete in 5 minutes, which was company-required and FAA gets a copy of it. In the aftermath, we didn't hear a thing about it. No additional paperwork, no hassles, etc.

So the question is....

Why are people hesitant to declare an emergency due to misconception of paperwork, especially given the fact that by declaring emergency you also cover your butt in case you bust an FAR??
Declaring Emergencies

I don't think it is so much the paperwork as it is fear of the FAA's "helpful" attitude. People are afraid that the FAA just might "help" themselves to violating them. Every time there is an incident that warrants FSDO attention, a piece of paper is generated. They have a fear, which I believe is legitimate, that the event might be discovered somewhere and be misunderstood.

Another reason, tied to the above, is people don't understand exactly what constitutes an emergency. In your Cessna situation, I would think about it. I might just call Tower and tell them I have an engine caged and request priority in landing. A lot depends. All these things are easy for me to say while sitting and writing at my computer. Actually flying the airplane might put a whole different spin on it.

AvWeb put out a great series of articles on FAA enforcement actions: http://www.avweb.com/articles/enforce1/. It is written in more or less plain English and is worth reading.

Anyway, that's my .02.
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There really is no paperwork involved when you declare an emergency. I speak from experience. For private aircraft, the only thing that happens is one of the fire trucks will follow you to your parking spot, and a fireman will take your name, N-number, and type of emergency. This is for CFR's records only- it doesn't go to the FAA.

If the FAA suspects that a violation may have occured (like, you made a deadstick landing because you planned a five minute fuel reserve), they will be getting the information directly from you and the control tower, not the CFR records, so it makes no difference if you declared an emergency or not. Also, ATC can declare an emergency for you if they think your situation warrants it.

I always taught my students that if they had a situation where they felt more comfortable with priority handling, or if they thought they might have to break an FAR to meet the emergency, to go ahead and declare.
And no matter how corny it sounds, say "Mayday" three times just like the good book says. Anything else may be ambiguous, and certainly may not be understood when dealing with foreign controllers.
Amen Husky you are the first person that I have ever heard say that, other than the Coasties, I don't believe that I have even my IP ever said that.
My longwinded post......

I guess it depends on what type of emergency it is. My friend was flying in a Commander 114 and lost a cylinder. He wasn't able to maintain altitude with the resultant loss of power and declared on about 5 mile final, but he ended up making the field. He wasn't asked to fill out any paperwork at all. Another time when I was flying with a student I didn't get a green light in a C172RG. This particular plane had been squawked before for not getting a green light due to a faulty contact in the gear system. I could see the mains down and was't overly concerned about it, but figured this would be a great opportunity to teach the student a little about this type of situation. While still out in the practice area I had him tell me what we should do. He ended up checking the shutter dimmer, switching light bulbs, checking circuit brakers, cycling the gear a few times, and manually pumping it down; none of which worked. We prepared for a soft field landing back at our airport, but I told him to request a low approach by the tower to see if they could tell us what the nose gear looked like. We notifed the tower of our situation but didn't declare an emergency. The tower didn't declare for us, but they went through all the motions of an emergency... "for practice". We must have had every fire truck on the airport and a 20 mile radius at the airport within minutes! We made an uneventful landing and it turned out to be another faulty connector. All we had to do was give our names and addresses etc to the fire department which he assured me would NOT go to the FAA, FSDO, or NTSB. They just need it for their paperwork that the city requires. In this case I was pretty sure the gear was down and locked, and it was just some sort of wiring problem. I agree with bobbysamd, every situation is different, but if in doubt or unsure of a situation, play it safe and declare an emergency.
Several years ago coming off a drop I blew a hydraulic actuator on a door, and lost all my fluid. I also lost the gear, flaps, brakes and the drop system.

After spending about 45 minutes doing circles over the field, we called it an emergency, and prepositioned the trucks. The tanker base was evacuated to TLH, and we ended up making an uneventful landing. Not only was there no hassle, but every party invovled was very courteous, professional, and helpful. Even better, the actuator was up inside a tank filled with H-5606 and retardant, and I needed to spend the next 2 hours in there replacing it. I was offered an attack line of one of the fire trucks, complete with side proportion discharge foam. Where water wouldn't have cleaned out the tank, that foam did, and allowed me to get in there and work. Just an extra benifit.

That same season, I caged five engines. I didn't declare an emergency in any of those cases, because they didn't constitute an emergency.

You must look at the particular scenario. In some cases, indeed many cases, loss of an engine constitutes an emergency. In others, it doesn't. There are times when declaring an emergency would do little good; there may be no one to hear you, and no one to help you. Some time back I experienced an engine failure shortly after getting rid of a load of jumpers in a 182. Because of the nature of jump flying, the field was below me, with plenty of altitude, and only a few miles away. Gliding to a landing was a simple matter with plenty of altitude, and there was no need to declare an emergency, and no one who could do anything about it anyway. The only thing to declare was getting someone to come help me pull the airplane back to the shed.

Some very spectacular disasters have occured because pilots were afraid to declare an emergency or ask for help. There is no reason not to, if the pilot warrants it. What constitutes an emergency in one operation, may not in another. What constitutes an emergency for one pilot, may not for another. What constitutes an emergency in one aircraft, may not in another. One cannot accurately define an emergency for every possible scenario; a pilot should use his or her best judgement, conservatively, and be prepared to ask for help, if needed.

Mayday, or Pan-Pan may be used alternately. Use of this call is inappropriate if already speaking to an agency, unless the frequency is jammed. If already speaking to an agency, simply state the nature of your problem, and your request. The use of mayday or pan-pan is most effective for either broadcasts in the blind, or interjecting urgency into a busy frequency.
I tend to agree with all that is being said. The AIM very clearly says that if the outcome of the flight is in question - declare an emmergency. Dont wait till you are going down in flames because most likely by then it is too late to really receive much benefit.
I have declared an emmergency several times- never questioned.
HOWEVER, once when I was a chief pilot slash chief flight instructor for a small company I had an employee that returned after T.O. due to smoke in the cockpit(electrical). He told tower they needed to land but was not an emmergency. Now we are talking about some paper work.. the FAA was notified of this and they were extremely curious why he did not declare an emmergency. I did more reports on that than all my other emmergencies put together
For the record,

3 individuals can declare an emergency:

1. The pilot - (or aircrew)

2. ATC - If the controller hears that you have a condition which he feels is an emergency or meets one of the preset conditions for declaring an emergency, he/she may do so. And they don't even have to say the word emergency. Here's a clue though... If he starts asking for your fuel state and soul's on-board, that is the magic phrase to let you know that they are declaring the emergency for you. It does not mean that you are going to have to fill out any paperwork or see any for that matter, unless the controlling office feels it is necessary.

3. The dispatcher - of course this is only in the case of a Part 121 operation which uses dispatchers. Since the conduct of the flight is a joint responsibility between the PIC and the dispatcher, either can declare.

I just thought it might be useful for some to see number two above and how emergency declarations can occur completely without your knowledge.

You are better off declaring the emergency and filling out the paperwork, than not declaring, something bad happening because ATC was unaware, and then having to explain why you didn't.
All good points, but still I have a problem with CFI's and some pilots telling me "I didn't want to deal with the paperwork."

If the situation did not warrant an emergency, fine. But if it does... DECLARE AN EMERGENCY.

Case in point... the guy had a partial power loss, could barely climb 200 fpm, and was trailing smoke and does not declare an emergency. Here's the excerpt: "I quickly decided that we could glide back to the runway if necessary and that we probably wouldn't blow up, so I declined (to declare an emergency); BESIDES I DIDN'T WANT TO DO THE PAPERWORK."
The book is called Cockpit Resource Management by Thomas P. Turner, 2nd Edition. This is in Chapter 5, p.79.

Just because you know or think you can make it down, does not mean you shouldn't declare an emergency.

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