I do declare – the emergency mindset

image modified: rybindmitriy | stock.adobe.com, ktsdesign | stock.adobe.com

Once realising you are in an emergency condition, it’s easier to focus on decisions that help you safely land

I learnt a lot about flying airplanes while working 20 metres underground.

I served as a missile launch control officer in the US Air Force in the waning days of the Cold War. We worked in two-person crews, a commander and a deputy, behind a sealed blast door in a small room filled with old-school electronics that ran hot. A huge, forced air cooling system did its best to control the heat. But the possibility of fire in that confined space was always there, either from the electronics themselves, malfunction of the air conditioning unit that cooled them or other scenarios.

Consequently, we learnt to recognise overheats and potential overheats very rapidly and were trained to follow practiced emergency procedures swiftly and correctly while using detailed emergency procedures checklists (EPs).

One of the key elements of our monthly training in a missiles procedures trainer simulator and our annual check ride evaluations was to voice aloud when you detected an ‘entering argument’ – a status change requiring the use of an EP. Once you and your crew partner called it aloud, for example, ‘Electrical fire or overheat,’ your job was to make it to the bottom of the applicable checklist as quickly as possible. Stating the nature of the scenario verbally was designed primarily to communicate with your crew partner and get agreement on the status. But I found actually saying ‘Electrical fire or overheat’ aloud had a noticeable additional benefit – it put me in the emergency mindset.

I use and teach this ‘say it out loud’ technique in aeroplanes and think it can make a difference.

Facing the facts

By way of illustration, a recent Pilatus PC-12 accident may be helpful. The NTSB’s investigation is still in its preliminary stages, but what we know so far might suggest the benefits of entering the emergency mindset. On April 23, 2020, about 1600 Central time, the aeroplane was substantially damaged when it landed short of the intended divert airport after losing engine power. The solo pilot received serious injuries.

While in cruise, the pilot told ATC that he was losing power and accepted vectors to a nearby airport. The pilot then reported engine power had stabilised and he wanted to return to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. A few moments later, the pilot again reported losing engine power and needed to go back to the divert airport. At that time, ATC advised that a different airport was closer and provided a heading. The pilot reported that he was going to perform a 360° turn to set up for a left base for the second divert airport, but the airplane impacted terrain in a muddy field short of the runway.

The PC-12’s pilot never formally declared an emergency. The controller coded the ‘EA’ (for emergency aircraft) on their scope, as evidenced by several online videos of the ATC radar track. In effect, ATC declared an emergency for the pilot, and provided every service it would have provided had the pilot declared an emergency themself.

Putting themself in the emergency mindset might have made it easier for the pilot to stick to the plan and land at their first available divert airport, even after power temporarily returned.

The emergency mindset results from the realisation and acknowledgment that there is a threat to your survival. Once you’ve come to that realisation, your objective is to do whatever is necessary to get the aeroplane on the ground as safely as possible as soon as possible.

Waiting until you have no options left is far too late to declare an emergency.

Making the decision

As part of learning to fly we are taught about emergency procedures. Most commonly we practice engine failures and, if the instructor is good, a few other systems failures. But they tend to be taught as rapid, distinct events – the engine quits, we glide and prepare to land somewhere. Part of this lesson includes declaring an emergency with ATC.

However, in many fatal aeroplane accidents the emergency is not so immediate and distinct. The scenario builds gradually from normal flight to the hint of a problem to increased stress and fewer options, until it becomes obvious there are no options left. Is that when you declare an emergency? If you’re not using ATC services at the time, what is the value of ‘declaring’ an emergency at all? Waiting until you have no options left is far too late to declare an emergency.

The intent of ‘declaring’ is not just to alert search and rescue to come find you – it’s to be able to execute options while they’re still available to you. For this to work, you need to put yourself in emergency mode well before a calamity is certain. Therefore, well before hope is lost, you need to be in the emergency mindset.

Once realising you are in an emergency condition, it’s easier to focus on decisions that help you safely land. To trigger that realisation, consider when you should know you are having an emergency. You have an emergency when:

  • You are performing tasks that are from emergency checklists. Any time you are running an emergency checklist, you are, by definition, in an emergency. You need the emergency mindset.
  • You have an abnormal inflight situation. A rough running engine, an alternator failure or retractable landing gear that will not extend normally do not have the immediacy of a total engine failure or an electrical fire inflight. But they are emergencies nonetheless; your flight is no longer business as usual and you need to be in the emergency mindset to avoid letting the scenario deepen into catastrophe.
  • You are flying in violation of the limitations of your pilot licence or recency of experience. If you’re not approved and current for night flight but are still in the air as it’s getting dark, you’re in an emergency. If you’re a VFR-only pilot who enters IMC, or you are instrument rated but not on an instrument clearance and have entered IMC, you should be in the emergency mindset.
  • You are in imminent danger. Flying over rising terrain under a cloud deck, with the ground rising and/or the clouds lowering? If it looks like you may soon be unable to maintain visual minimums, you need the emergency mindset now, before you have no options.

Say it aloud: ‘I have an emergency’. You may make this declaration to ATC. However, it’s more important that you make this declaration firmly to yourself. Knowing you are in an emergency will help you focus on decisions that get you and your passengers safely on the ground.

Say it aloud: ‘I have an emergency’.

Give yourself permission

Usually discussions of risk management surround bad examples. However, ATSB investigation AO-2016-073 is a good example of making a difficult decision as a result of the emergency mindset.

From the report:

On the morning of 3 July 2016, a Cessna 150M aeroplane, registered VH-TDZ, and a Cessna 152 aeroplane, registered VH‑KTL, departed from the Exmouth aeroplane landing area (ALA), Western Australia, to conduct whale shark spotting on the western side of the Exmouth peninsula.

At about 1145, the cloud base lowered and visibility reduced on the western side of the peninsula, and the pilots collectively agreed to return to Exmouth. However, the pilots were unable to navigate back to the Exmouth ALA in visual meteorological conditions and both conducted precautionary landings on a road on the west coast of the peninsula. The aeroplanes did not sustain any damage and the pilots were not injured.

As a result of this incident, both aeroplane operators have amended their operations manuals to highlight the need for their pilots to make early decisions to return to the Exmouth ALA when weather conditions are deteriorating and to maintain an alternate plan.

Our natural reaction to deteriorating weather is to fly to an aerodrome or improved landing area. If our route is cut off, we tend to think about rerouting to another aerodrome.

By consciously noting that they were in a swiftly worsening scenario and putting themselves in the emergency mindset, however, the pilots of these two Cessnas essentially gave themselves permission to look at all the available options – including setting down on a road, something most pilots do not consider except in the event of total engine failure.

Most of all, declaring an emergency puts you in the emergency mindset and triggers your trained and practiced responses to the threats to your safety and that of your passengers.

Pilatus Aircraft
image: PC-12 | Pilatus Aircraft Ltd

Help from below

An Airservices Australia Safety Bulletin describes what happens when you declare an emergency with ATC. First, your declaration triggers controllers’ use of the in-flight emergency response checklist.

This includes controller assistance in situations such as:

  • VFR emergencies, including VFR into IMC
  • medical emergencies, including pilot and/or passenger
  • general aeroplane equipment failures and emergencies, such as fuel shortage
  • unlawful interference.

Your emergency declaration authorises controllers to:

  • allocate you priority status
  • assign you a discrete radio frequency, where available,
  • to reduce distractions
  • notify the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, appropriate aerodrome or other agency to be ready to supply assistance
  • ask other aeroplane in your vicinity to provide assistance as needed.

It’s up to you, as pilot in command, to tell ATC what assistance you need and what you want to do. ATC can help substantially. But ultimately, in an emergency, you have to decide what to do. Getting into the emergency mindset and committing yourself to get the aeroplane safely on the ground at the earliest opportunity, is key to working with ATC to maximise your chances of survival.

Time to be in earnest

Declaring an emergency, then, is more about you and setting the tone for what you’ll do next, than it is to get anything more from ATC. Saying ‘I have an emergency’ (and I truly recommend you say it aloud), firmly establishes your emergency condition and puts you in the mindset that, from here on in, you will be making decisions based on dealing with the emergency, not trying to complete the flight as planned. Now your primary goal is to get yourself and your passengers safely on the ground – dealing with any inconvenient outcomes of doing so later, after you’ve ended the emergency.

ATC is a vital resource to provide information like airport information, frequencies and weather updates when you may be too busy to look things up yourself. But the controller cannot troubleshoot your problem or fly the airplane for you. Best outcomes result when you remain in charge and tell ATC what you need and what you want to do.

Most of all, declaring an emergency puts you in the emergency mindset and triggers your trained and practiced responses to the threats to your safety and that of your passengers.

One other thing: If you are well trained and current with the checklists, you’ll be so involved in following the proper procedure that you won’t be afraid. That’s a common comment among pilots who have survived emergencies: time slows down, training kicks in and, if they feel fear, it typically doesn’t happen until after the aeroplane has come to a stop on the ground and they’ve run out of things to do.


  1. Concur with Those points. I had an Engine failure in the nineteen eighties. A major Oil line burst. Oil all over the wind screen No power. Time stood still for a second then the training kicked in, Mayday Mayday and I picked a Mining airfield which I glided to.. No injury to myself or Pax, aircraft suffered no damage on landing . After landing safely, the fear then kicked in being aware of the close shave.

  2. This is a great topic and very relevant to those individuals who would choose to remain “under the radar” for whatever reason.

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