When To Declare an In-Flight Emergency
Declaring an in-flight emergency is not something to take lightly. Play this trump card if you need it but only if you need it.
What is an emergency? The FAA defines it as a “distress or urgency condition.” H-m-m-m…so would “I have to get home because the Super Bowl starts in ten minutes” qualify?” A sage old instructor once told me that some pilots make an emergency out of a mag check while others run out of fuel and merely request a lower altitude.
Is It a “Get Out of Jail” Card?
Let’s see if there’s any wiggle-room afforded pilots by the FAA regulations:
§ 91.3(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.
§ 91.123(a) When an ATC clearance has been obtained, no pilot in command may deviate from that clearance unless an amended clearance is obtained, an emergency exists, or the deviation is in response to a traffic alert and collision avoidance system resolution advisory. However, except in Class A airspace, a pilot may cancel an IFR flight plan if the operation is being conducted in VFR weather conditions. When a pilot is uncertain of an ATC clearance, that pilot shall immediately request clarification from ATC.
(b) Except in an emergency, no person may operate an aircraft contrary to an ATC instruction in an area in which air traffic control is exercised.
…sounds pretty good on first glance. But let’s dig a little further…
The salient point made in FAR 91.3 is with the words “immediate action.” According to aviation attorney Gregory Reigel, “An emergency is a situation that could jeopardize the safety of a flight. The emergency situation cannot be of the PIC’s own making. That is, it must be unforeseen and unavoidable by the exercise of sound judgment. The PIC is responsible for making the determination as to whether an emergency exists and has the authority to take responsive action.” Attorney Reigel continues, “a PIC does not necessarily have to advise ATC of the existence of an emergency. Although in practice, declaring an emergency to ATC, if you are able, is a good idea since ATC will then give you the benefit of priority handling and additional assistance that may be needed to handle the emergency. that are reasonable under the circumstances.”1
So we cannot infer from FAR 91.3 that boneheaded judgment is washed away by that permissive reg. In fact, depending on the extent of attention and disruption there probably WILL be an investigation and probably WILL be paperwork.
So when we declare an in-flight emergency, what happens? For one thing, WE might not even be the ones declaring an emergency! It can be declared for us. In addition to the pilot(s) an emergency can be declared by dispatch personnel, air traffic controllers, and company representatives. The latter may be done without the flight crew even knowing it. When an aircraft is in trouble, every resource becomes available to provide whatever assistance is needed to bring the aircraft safely back to Earth. This includes radar and DF facilities of both the ARTCC system and the US military and other governmental agencies such as the FCC and TSA.
After making such a declaration, the controller may prompt you to change your transponder to 7700. He may not do this and it’s up to you to switch over yourself.
Air traffic controllers begin routing all other aircraft so as to provide priority handling of the aircraft in distress. The controller’s handbook states that a controller is to “give the maximum amount of assistance judged to be necessary.” In addition, pilots can refuse or accept suggested or ATC instructed actions in the interest of safety. It is also incumbent on the pilots to communicate direness of a situation if they feel a controller is giving them an inappropriate command.
Important: Once an emergency is declared it can be withdrawn. Of course, whether the flight continues to land under an emergency declaration or not there will probably still be paperwork, depending on a lot of variables.
FAR § 91.3 (c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.
Under Part 121:
FAR §121.557 (c) Whenever a pilot in command or dispatcher exercises emergency authority…The person declaring the emergency shall send a written report of any deviation through the certificate holder’s operations manager to the Administrator.
The in-flight emergency declaration is a tool to be used without fear of reprisal. The intent of the regulation is to ensure that a pilot will handle an emergency to whatever extent is necessary without fear of violation. One FAA inspector is quoted as saying, “I’ve never seen a pilot violated for deviating from a regulation when that pilot has either declared an emergency OR has stipulated in ANY written response to the FAA that an emergency existed at the time of the deviation.”2
In my career, I have declared an emergency on several occasions due to passengers experiencing medical problems. Even though it was in busy Class B airspace with a conga-line of other aircraft ahead of me on the approach, they all were held and we rocketed past them to the waiting ambulance on the ground and I’ve never been asked to submit any paperwork.
There are several tricks pilots use to circumvent declaring an in-flight emergency. Telling ATC you are “fuel critical” is not an emergency declaration. Advising the controller you’d “appreciate expediting the approach because we’re working on a problem” isn’t an emergency declaration. Declared emergency help is not provided unless a declaration is made and such should be the case only when it is possible or probable that there may be injury or loss of life. It is not used when you’re in a situation where you think you possibly could run low on fuel.
If you declare an emergency and must deviate from any regulation, just do it. You don’t have to tell ATC anything. Once an emergency is declared your radar symbol changes and AIRCRAFT EMERGENCY appears adjacent to your symbol on the controller’s screen. The controller will know you’re doing the best you can and you have free berth to use any judgment you feel is necessary.
I have heard pilots declare an emergency many times and the radio becomes eerily silent from that moment on. Other aircraft on the frequency are all listening intently to the unfolding drama. Once the distressed aircraft lands safely the controller often says something like, “Baron Six-Eight X-Ray, turn left at Charlie and contact ground. Good job.”
“Good job” are the words you want to hear after declaring an emergency and the pilot will often respond, “Back at-cha.”
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Featured Image: Steve Jurvetson