Declaring an Emergency by: Mark Dixon TC Inspector

Declaring an Emergency
by Mark Dixon, Civil Aviation Safety Inspector, General Aviation, Ontario Region, Civil Aviation, Transport Canada


What does it mean to declare an emergency? Is the pilot-in-command (PIC) going to have to face an inquiry? Does the PIC have to pay for emergency services? Does the PIC need permission to do this? Is declaring an emergency a really big inconvenience to air traffic control (ATC) and other aircraft?
This article will look at declaring an emergency from a decision-making standpoint, and shed some light on the why and when to declare an emergency.

First, read the following report taken from the Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System (CADORS) and, assuming you were the PIC, make a quick decision if you would declare an emergency or not:

The (a/c type) turbojet aircraft (operating as XXXX) was on an IFR flight from Chicago (O’Hare) International Airport (KORD) to Ottawa MacDonald-Cartier International Airport (CYOW). The flight crew reported that they had a flap problem and requested to land on Runway32. They advised that they were not declaring an emergency and that no emergency equipment would be required. However, NAV CANADA tower staff declared an emergency and the crash crews and airport duty manager were advised. The aircraft landed without incident at 0329Z, and aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) stood down at 0330Z. Operational impact-unknown.
Well, would you or not? Let’s look at the situation.

Having declared many emergencies over the years, I feel there is no such thing as a “slight” or “kind of” emergency. It is either an emergency or it is not. To decide if you should declare an emergency depends on the situation. The decision to declare should be made as early as possible, and communicated to ATC right away. Generally speaking, you should never be afraid to declare the emergency. If the situation that you are experiencing is in any way, or could become, unsafe or dangerous, declare the emergency. Humming and hawing, delaying, declaring “kind of an emergency” or a “small emergency” leaves a lot of uncertainty. You owe it to your passengers, crew, and the aircraft owner to declare an emergency if you have a problem that warrants it. ATC will only be able to coordinate emergency resources and help out if they know you have a problem. If they are left out, or uncertain of the degree of the situation, it makes it difficult to help. Emergency services personnel are professionals who will not give you a hard time about declaring the emergency- it’s their job, and they are always happy to help. You will not face an inquiry or be liable for fees or fines.
A CADORS report is generated by NAV CANADA and is followed up by Transport Canada or the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB). When contacted, we like to get details and discuss the incident. For all of the CADORS reports that I have followed up, I have told the PIC that declaring an emergency was a good decision, and that we are following up from an “educational safety” point of view.

For the purposes of this newsletter, I ran the above CADORS report by a wide variety of Transport Canada inspectors, private pilots, flight instructors and senior airline check pilots.

Emergency vehicles responding to an aircraft emergency

Not surprisingly, the opinions varied wildly. Some pilots will declare an emergency if their watch stops working within a control zone on a VFR day; others would only declare if three of the four engines were on fire, the first officer was incapacitated while doing an ADF approach to minima, with no electrics, hydraulics, or hand held radio, 10 min of fuel remaining, and no suitable alternate within 1 000 mi. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but the feedback clearly makes declaring an emergency a pilot decision-making topic.

The Transport Canada Aeronautical Information Manual (TCAIM) makes several references to emergencies-SAR4.1, COM5.11, and RAC1.8. Go and look up these references, I’ll wait while you do this…When an emergency is declared, flight priority is also being requested. It is then up to the pilot to decide if emergency response vehicles (fire, ambulance) are needed on site for the landing. This decision essentially rests with the pilot, although NAV CANADA or the airport authority may also call for emergency response vehicles (as was the case in our CADORS report). Declaring an emergency is not exactly the same as a MAYDAY or PANPAN call; however, they do often come together. A MAYDAY is a situation of distress where safety is being threatened by grave and imminent danger, and requires immediate assistance. A PANPAN call is used in a situation of urgency where safety is threatened, but does not require immediate assistance. To sum up, MAYDAY and PANPAN calls are the communication tools, and declaring an emergency is the request for “flight priority.”

Every sound decision requires an assessment of the situation and the various options. Sometimes you have very little time to make a choice. Let’s assume time was limited for our crew in the CADORS report; therefore, the best choice in my opinion is the safest one-declare the emergency and get ARFF on site. Taking the high road will generate less second-guessing and doubt from the crew, and allow you to proceed with checklists, standard operating procedures (SOPs), briefings, abnormalities, and ensure everyone is clear on the plan. This should lead to the least risk to passengers, crew, and others. Money concerns should be very low on the consideration pole.

In general aviation, the need to declare the emergency should be elevated. If you are a private pilot with 100 hr, but only flew 15hr in the past year, you should never hesitate to get help. From my inquiries, the bulk of our professional pilots have no problem requesting assistance.

Here’s an analogy to consider: You live next door to a neurosurgeon, and someone in your house just slipped, fell, and is unconscious. You look out the window and your neighbour is washing his Lexus in the driveway. Would you hesitate to run out and ask him to get his wife to come over and diagnose your friend? (He is an Embraer145 first officer on three-months unpaid leave for not declaring an emergency and not following SOPs during a pilot proficiency check, so you wouldn’t want to take his advice about any kind of emergency situation!)

Whatever type of aircraft you are flying, chances are there is another pilot or controller within radio range who has been there and done that, and I have yet to meet one who would not lend a hand.
When in doubt, don’t worry about it, and declare! The answers to the five questions at the beginning, then, are respectively: a bit of excitement, no, no, no and no.