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MAYDAY: Why Do Pilots Say Mayday?


As a pilot, declaring a Mayday over the radio means that all hell is about to break loose or already has. This is a saying we train to use in the hope that we never do, but when we do it triggers a chain of events that hopefully leads to a positive outcome for all involved.

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday is used by pilots when an incident is taking place on an aircraft & they need to make other pilots & air traffic control aware of their situation. Aircraft identification, position & aircraft problem are communicated to help get as much assistance to the pilot/s as possible.

When a situation occurs, getting help anyway a pilot can is greatly received and the word Mayday is an instant way to get the attention of everyone on the same frequency who hears the distress call. Of course, only certain assistance can be given over a radio call, but that assistance can change everything in the right situation.

Why Would A Pilot Say “Mayday”?

Pilots should declare a Mayday whenever they feel they are in distress or have encountered an emergency situation. Mayday is an international word and announcing it in any country has the same effect.

When a pilot declares an emergency over the radio they can start the radio transmission with the words “Emergency” or “Mayday”, however, the preferred method is to declare “Mayday” three times if time permits, and then the rest of the message.

Mayday’s can be declared for situations like:

  • Engine or aircraft fires
  • Smoke in the aircraft
  • Engine failures
  • Bird strikes
  • Hydraulic failures
  • Total electrical failure
  • Landing gear failure
  • Rapid Depressurization
  • Loss of visual reference
  • Crew/passenger medical emergency
  • Low fuel
  • Heck, even getting lost warrants a mayday!

As the pilot is running through the emergency checklist, fighting with a malfunctioning aircraft, or trying to keep the aircraft upright and flying, having another person aware of their situation can begin to assist or arrange help which could save precious minutes if the aircraft is involved in a crash.

Many pilots have a fear that declaring an emergency will get them into trouble with the FAA or air traffic control but that is so far from the truth. The sooner air traffic control is aware of the pilot’s predicament, the sooner they can begin to assist the pilot in any way they can.

Aviation follows three rules:

  1. Aviate
  2. Navigate
  3. Communicate

In that order. It is the pilot’s main concern to fly the aircraft while dealing with the emergency. Air traffic control can assist with helping navigate the aircraft through sight or by radar, and communication can be offered to help the pilot, who may now only have the mental capacity to just listen.

Emergencies in flight are a terrifying and mentally challenging experience, but with regular training, most events can be dealt with efficiantly and smoothly to allow the pilot to maintain more mental capacity to help deal with the details surrounding the emergency – Like where to land!

My Regular Flight Simulator Training Allows Endless Practice Of Emergency Situations

When a pilot is in an emergency situation they can break EVERY rule in the book to ensure the survival of everyone on board.

What Happens When A Pilots Declares Mayday?

When a pilot declares a Mayday over the radio several things can happen depending on where the pilot is:

In Remote Locations

When piloting an aircraft in remote parts of the world the mayday call may go on deaf ears if no other aircraft or air traffic controller are within radio range. Even when flying in the middle of nowhere it is always good airmanship to make the call just incase someone does hear.

That someone could be a pilot in a commercial airliner flying overhead that hears the message and relays it to the air traffic controller they are in contact with. Airliners fly much higher than many small aircraft and their line of sight to a radio communications station is far, far greater than an aircraft flying at low altitude.

If no one hears, then the pilot is on their own and hopefully, they may have a cell or satellite phone onboard and connected to their radio system or the last option is to rely on the Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT).

The ELT can broadcast a signal containing GPS coordinates to the Search & Rescue satellite system by turning the ELT on or when it detects a hard impact in the event of a crash. This will immediately begin the aviation search and rescue procedures run by the FAA.

In Populated Areas & Airspace

When an aircraft is flying around the populated cities, outlying areas or in the airway system most aircraft will be on a frequency assigned to a nearby airport, airspace controller, or the general air-to-air traffic frequency used in that area.

When a mayday is declared it will be heard by someone, whether that be a pilot or an air traffic controller. If only another pilot hears it they can relay the information to an air traffic controller, at which point the air traffic controller may try and reach the pilot in distress on that frequency.

When a mayday call is acknowledged by the air traffic controller most countries demand strict radio silence on the frequency to allow the pilot & air traffic controller to easily communicate without any distractions.

In busy airspace, the air traffic controller may ask the pilot in distress to switch to an alternate frequency, or if unable due to workload, then ATC may issue a broadcast for all other pilots to switch so as to keep the current frequency clear.

Air traffic controllers will now be working hard to:

  • Clear all nearby traffic away from the area
  • Keep an eye on the distressed aircraft to maintain separation from other aircraft and terrain
  • Give the distressed aircraft priority handling into any area or airport they wish
  • Talk to the pilot to see what help they need
  • Liaise with an airport of intended landing to get emergency crews on standby and the airport airspace and runways cleared
  • Help with directions by giving the pilot headings/altitudes to fly to get them to the nearest suitable airport
  • or any other help they can offer to reduce the pilot’s workload

This is usually done by bringing in an additional air traffic controller (if staffing allows) to let the main controller deal solely with the distressed aircraft and let the secondary controller liase and arrange the peripheral help.

To Finish

Declaring a Mayday is asking for help when something could be on its way to going wrong, like a low fuel situation, or when the pilot is fighting for their life.

Even if there is nothing that other pilots or air traffic controllers can do just having someone to talk to can keep the pilot calm which can be just enough to keep making the right decisions and achieving a positive outcome.

Unfortunately, there are many occasions where mayday calls are heard by pilots and the distressed pilot has their mic keyed all the way to the end, which I can tell you from personal experience is a haunting memory that will stay with me forever.

For those pilots that get help early by not worrying about getting into trouble, the help far outweighs any paperwork that may follow – Heck I would much rather do days of paperwork than not be able to go home again!

Header Image:
Source: NMOS332

Further Reading

If you found this article interesting and would like to keep reading, I highly recommend the following articles from my blog:

Rick James

I am an aviation nut! I'm an ATP-rated helicopter pilot & former flight instructor with over 3500 hours spanning 3 countries and many different flying jobs. I love aviation and everything about it. I use these articles to pass on cool facts and information to you whether you are a pilot or just love aviation too! If you want to know more about me, just click on my picture!

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