Declaring an Emergency – Maydays Should Be Free

Why aren’t Maydays free?  Why do we have to provide logbooks? 

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Each year at the air races in Reno, NV, the safety team repeats their mantra that “Maydays are Free!”  I compete in Formula One air racing, so one week a year, CFR means “Crash, Fire, Rescue” instead of “Code of Federal Regulations.”  The safety folks remind us that they don’t want to hear “I may be having a problem.”  If you have a problem, get on the ground. 

The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) says that Mayday should be repeated three times “to command radio silence,” but the Reno CFR team has dealt with as many as five maydays in a single race, so, they would prefer that you say Mayday just once.  In response, you will hear the current winds and “emergency in progress” so that the other racers know what is happening.  And that is all that you will hear.  There are no questions. 

Once you land, the CFR team will be at your airplane within 60 seconds, guaranteed.  Give them a thumbs up so that they know that you are ok, and you don’t want them to start spraying foam on the plane.  And that’s it.  The FAA doesn’t do a debrief, and there is no paperwork.  At the air races, Maydays are truly free.

Mayday Procedure

Maydays are not so simple away from the air races.  The AIM tells us to say the following in an emergency:

  1. If distress, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAY-DAY; if urgency, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN.
  2. Name of station addressed.
  3. Aircraft identification and type.
  4. Nature of distress or urgency.
  5. Weather.
  6. Pilots’ intentions and request.
  7. Present position, and heading; or if lost, last known position, time, and heading since that position.
  8. Altitude or flight level.
  9. Fuel remaining in minutes.
  10. Number of people on board.
  11. Any other useful information.

However, the old rule on priorities still applies:

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

If the engine quits on your single-engine aircraft, you may not have time to say much more than “Mayday” before you land.

What Happens After a Mayday

Unfortunately, landing safely is not the end of the situation.  Air Traffic Control is expected to complete a “Mandatory Occurrence Report” for in-flight emergencies. 

An FAA inspector following up on the report will generally call within 10 days.  The inspector will want to know what happened but may also ask to review your flight log to make sure that you were current (flight review and, if applicable, IFR currency). 

The inspector may also ask to see aircraft maintenance logbook entries to ensure that the aircraft was “returned to service” after the emergency and before the aircraft’s next flight.

Why Aren’t Maydays Free? 

Why aren’t Maydays free?  Why do we have to provide logbooks?  Unfortunately, pilots have occasionally tried to hide a pilot deviation with a Mayday.  If ATC asks a pilot to “say altitude” and, after a long delay, the pilot responds with, “uhhhh, Mayday!” then naturally the FAA will want to know more about what happened.  Remember that you have an obligation to provide your flight logs if requested, and the FAA has the power to issue an emergency suspension of your pilot’s certificate if you fail to provide the logbooks.

Most pilots remember that they can deviate from any rule to the extent required to meet that emergency.  However, the same rule (14 CFR § 91.3) also provides that any pilot who deviates from a rule under this emergency authority “shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.”

The AIM states that “if the emergency authority of 14 CFR Section 91.3(b) is used to deviate from the provisions of an ATC clearance, the pilot-in-command must notify ATC as soon as possible and obtain an amended clearance.”

Maydays and the NTSB

The FAA is not the only agency that may be interested in your Mayday. 

Remember that the NTSB requires immediate reporting of some incidents, even if the landing was a non-event. If you have had a mayday, or bend anything, you will want to review these requirements.  49 CFR § 830.5 lists the immediate notification items, which include several issues that may not result in an “accident,” such as: in-flight fire, “release of all or a portion of a propeller blade” and “a complete loss of information, excluding flickering, from more than 50 percent of an aircraft’s cockpit displays.”  If you need to make an immediate notification to the NTSB, contact information for the NTSB’s regional offices is available at  You may call the NTSB Response Operations Center, at 844-373-9922 or 202-314-6290.

Pilots hate paperwork, and too many pilots hesitate to declare an emergency because they don’t want to deal with the consequences.  This is a dangerous mindset.  Maydays may not be free from paperwork, but they do buy you the attention and priority that you need in the moment.

This article appeared in the December, 2021 issue of Business & Commercial Aviation as a Point of Law article.

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