Emergency: We’re all getting MAYDAYS wrong.

By Mark Zee


Pilots and Air Traffic Contollers communicate with each other every day. But it’s not very often that we get to talk to teach other in real conversation: sharing experiences, exchanging ideas, learning, and just having some fun and getting to know each other. Yesterday, in Danger Club #11, that’s what we got to do, and it was eye-opening.

150 people came along to the meeting yesterday on MAYDAY’s and Emergencies. For such a critical aspect of our intertwined worlds, we found a lot of unsolved mysteries, and a lot that we’re getting wrong. We can both make life much easier on each other, it seems!

So, let’s make this a starting point for figuring out some of these mysteries. With more collaboration, we can improve how emergencies unfold, and how we handle them in the cockpit and in front of the radar screen. In no particular order, let’s jump in!

This is a living page. We’ll update and revise this as we get more feedback, so please comment below ⬇️ or email us with your thoughts!


Declaring an Emergency 🆘 MAYDAY! 🆘

The first incident we looked at was a 747 on departure from Tokyo with a cargo fire warning. For two agonizingly long minutes, the crew tried to tell ATC they had a problem and neeeded to return: without success. Why? Primarily, phraseology. There was no mention of the word MAYDAY (or PAN-PAN). Key points on this:

  • US pilots, in particular, tend to use the phrase “Declaring an Emergency“. It’s baked into the US aviation system, but it has no legal or functional basis. Officially, it’s meaningless, but in the US it’s just the way we do things (more on this below).
  • When we go international, that becomes a problem, because it’s not something controllers are trained to understand. In airspace where English is not the first language, we must say MAYDAY, or PAN-PAN. That, and only that, is the trigger for ATC to understand and help.
  • The FAA AIM 6-3-1 covers Emergencies. The wording needs urgent improvement. The opening paragraph essentially says “Say what you want, really“. It follows with “The ICAO way (MAYDAY and PAN) is better, however“, but it doesn’t mandate using it. As a result, in the US, we have no solid guidance on how to handle emergency communications, and no phraseology guidance or examples. This looks like the root of the problem. @FAA: fix this please!
  • If your GOM(Ops Manual)/SOP’s suggest using “Declaring an Emergency” as the radio call, you’re setting your pilots up for failure, especially when going international. Make it MAYDAY!

2. What does a perfect MAYDAY call sound like?

Like this:

  • AAL001: “MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, American 1, Engine failure, continuing straight ahead, STAND BY”
  • DFW TWR: “American 1, Tower, MAYDAY roger

And especially internationally, these points are important (we cleared up some misunderstandings here as well):

  • It doesn’t matter if it’s the first call or you’re already in contact with ATC on the frequency, always say MAYDAY.
  • It’s a trigger for ATC. The frequency may sound quiet, but the controller may be on a phone call with another sector. Hearing “MAYDAY” will ensure immediate attention. Compare that to “Uh, we gotta problem here, and blah blah“. There’s no key phrase in there to force the controllers brain to listen immediately.
  • It’s a trigger for other aircraft on frequency. As soon as a MAYDAY call is made, everyone is listening and paying attention. If the controller doesn’t come straight back with an acknowledgement, it’s likely that another aircraft will jump in to try to get their attention. Also, everyone else will know to be silent.
  • Speak slowwwwwwwwwly. Like half normal speed. Say it once, say it clearly. When you describe the problem, use no more than three words, clear and slow “Cargo … FIRE ..  warning”.
  • That STAND BY part is not in the books, but it’s critical. If you’re lucky, you’ll get that ideal ATC response above which means “Got it, and I’ll be quiet now for a bit, so you can do your thing”. You’re not likely to be lucky, so you need to ask for that silence. STANDBY will improve the chance of that happening.

3. Everyone’s panicking for a minute

Listen to Shamrock 12G declare a MAYDAY here, just airborne from Orlando.

Listen to the voice change of the pilot. The physiological response, the startle effect: you can almost hear the increased heart rate. You can also hear the controllers stress response.

  • Despite the startle, the Shamrock pilot makes a perfect MAYDAY call. This is how it’s done. (And despite that, the controller asks “Are you Declaring an Emergency“. Back to the FAA problem – very muddled guidance on emergency phraseology in the US. @FAA: fix this please!)
  • As pilots, we might not think that “our emergency” is stressful for the controller. It is. The controller is just as startled as we are. Every controllers heart skips a beat when you say “MAYDAY”.
  • For both of us – pilots and controllers – once you’ve sorted out the immediate actions, a moment to sit on your hands and breathe is essential. For pilots, Aviate, Navigate, Communicate – get the airplane safe – and then take a moment to get your physiology into a more helpful place. For controllers, Ack the call, separate the immediate traffic, and then …  Three deep breaths, perhaps (IFALPA have been discussing this recently, as the startle effect become more understood). Bottom line is we don’t make great decisions when we are responding instinctivly.



4. Dear ATC, here is our 5 minute wishlist.

This one is going to be a work in progress, but we discussed a few things that might help a controller to understand what a pilot really wants in those first five minutes. We should try to distill this into a flash card, after some more discussion?

So, “American 1, MAYDAY, STANDBY“, ATC says “American 1, MAYDAY, Roger” … what then?

  • MAYDAY is just what we say to get attention. It very, very, very rarely means that we’re going down in flames like a bad Steven Seagal movie. Even though we’ll be startled for a moment, our training kicks in and we know exactly what we have to do.
  • The biggest obstacle to us doing that is distraction. Hence, the greatest gift you can give us is SILENCE.
  • Start by letting us know that you heard us. Acknowledge the call, and “MAYDAY Roger” is just fine.
  • Depending on traffic, terrain, and when it happens, give us an altitude and a heading. “Continue runway heading, climb 3000 feet“. We’ll tell you if we need something different. A heading is the most helpful form of lateral navigation, because we just twist the dial and engage heading mode. Don’t give us a direct-to point (heads down in FMS takes time). Don’t send us off to hold somewhere, just yet. Heading, heading, heading.
  • SILENCE. The less you talk to us, the more it helps. That MAYDAY call we make is just a small part of the procedure we’re trying to run. Getting that procedure done correctly requires both pilots to pay full attention, so stopping to talk to ATC is something we’d prefer to avoid.
  • The pilots will be having an essential conversation to check the state of the aircraft, anlayse the issue, and decide on the appropriate action. A common workflow is  Power, Performance, Analysis, Action: Power: Check Thrust, ATS engaged, set correct TOGA/CLB Performance: Flaps Up, Gear Up, Min Speed, Max Speed Analysis: MFDU Indication, OHP, Situation, Time Check, Priorities Action: [PNF] Memeory Items, MFDU, QRH, OMB, OMB Ch7, ILS minima conditions, MEL [PF] ATC call, Select approach considering situation, inform Cabin. For any engine issue, at the very least we will be retarding the throttle on the “bad engine”. Pilot 1: “Confirm thrust lever 1”; Pilot 2: (points to Thrust lever 1) ..  “Thrust lever 1, idle“. If it’s a failure, we might shut it down: ““Confirm fuel lever 1” – “Fuel lever 1, Shut”. If it’s a fire, “Confirm fire handle 1” – “Pull, discharge” – “Fire bottle 1 discharged” (Start timing) … That’s a lot, right! So, until we’ve done all that, we can’t really tell you much about our plans, we don’t know yet. We just need the space to work through all that.
  • We don’t want to land right way. In 49 cases out of 50, even with an engine failure, even a fire, we’re not going to want to enter a downwind or make a 180 to land immediately. That’s not in our training. We take any immediate action needed, but then sit on our hands, run the process, assess, analsyse, run some checklists, talk to the cabin, and form a plan. So the best thing you can do is give us vectors, keep us near the airport (within 15 miles, say).
  • Don’t ask us for souls and fuel in the first five minutes. Our brains are engaged in problem solving, and distraction make that difficult. Save that for later, if at all (more on that below!)

Question: What else should we add in here? What else is on our ATC wishlist?

More to come! But, please comment below on what we have so far …


More on the topic:

More reading:

Mark Zee

Mark Zee

Founder of OPSGROUP, and a former airline pilot, ATCO and flight dispatcher. Based in Christchurch, New Zealand. Email me at mark.zee@ops.group.


  • Andy "WU" Wuerde says:

    Hey all. Thanks for this great discussion. I am atc in Germany and I have 2 questions to the pilot side.
    1. We are Training to give you a new at clearance in case you have to divert. Because for us atco it is the legal thing to do. In case something happens and we lose Radio contact would you guys consider following your old flight Plan or going to the nearest appopriate aerodrome you decided on?

    2. 7700. For us Controllers this is big help. All.of us see it on our screen and we can prepare if we see it Approaching our area. But it is not a Common item on your checklists. And I had discussions with pilots to Set it because you pop up on Apps like flightradar. Would you consider setting it in your own to inform atc or do you wait until advised and is there a policy to avoid it within companies?

    • Aras says:

      Actually on some of our procedures it dictates that we set sq7700. ( E.g. Emergency Descent) In all other cases we can set sq7700 as a general rule as a part of airmanship.

  • Jelani Kelley says:

    This is a gross oversimplification. Here is a more nuanced and complete explanation:

    The initial communication, and if considered necessary, any subsequent transmissions by an aircraft in distress should begin with the signal “Mayday,” repeated three times. The signal “Pan-Pan” should be used in the same manner for an urgency condition (“Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan, Pan-Pan”). “Mayday” implies a significant risk to the aircraft and the lives of those onboard. “Pan-Pan” implies that an abnormal or emergency situation has occurred, which requires priority handling and attention, but not necessarily imminent danger. Some airports may delay or halt all airport operations to accommodate an aircraft that has declared “Mayday” until the “Mayday” is canceled or downgraded, or the aircraft is safely on the ground. If a situation can be stabilized, crews should downgrade the status to “Pan-Pan” or cancel “Mayday” altogether — this may include after completing a safe landing. If a crew has declared “Pan-Pan” and a situation deteriorates, the crew should upgrade their status to “Mayday.”

  • mark sheehy says:

    Everyone covered the points I wanted to make so I will just confirm two.
    US ATC trained and tested on phraseology
    US Airline pilots not. This is part of the problem .
    Supervisors standing at the emergency sector hounding the controller to obtain the fuel/SOB data is why you are not getting your silence. Everyone is afraid that when the plane goes down, they will be blamed for not doing these steps immediately.
    If we train pilots to use ICAO phraseology for these distress/emergency situations and we train FAA managers and supervisors the importance of timing their questions, we will get off to a good start here.

  • Patrick says:

    Very interesting topic, thanks for the comprehensive aggregation of all that “emergency stuff”.

    Two comments:

    1) I know that this point is close to nitpicking, but in the “perfect” mayday message, the French (and probably European) rules state that the format does include the name of the ATC control you’re talking to first thing after the MAYDAY part. So “Mayday, mayday, mayday, Boston Tower, American 1, Engine failure, continuing straight ahead, standby.”
    I personally think that the ATC name is the only part which doesn’t really alter the message meaning if omitted, but if you aim for the “perfect” (in the compliance way) message, it might be worth mentioning… If you aim for efficiency, though, I agree that keeping it short is more efficient.

    2) Our airline documentation explains the difference between PAN PAN and MAYDAY as followed:
    * PAN PAN means that the aircraft is in a state of urgency, which doesn’t require any immediate assistance (but which could evolve into distress later on).
    * MAYDAY means that the aircraft is in a state of emergency and requires an immediate assistance.

    Just my two cents…

  • Paolo Stermieri says:

    Perhaps it would be beneficial remembering the origin of both words used for distress call. At a time of increasing air traffic over the british channel, they had to come up with something that would be easily and unambiguously understood by both language speaking radio operators.
    So they agreed on the french term “M’Aidez” meaning “Help Me” with a pronounciation corresponding to “May-day” for the brits, supplemented by “Panne” meaning “Breakdown” and pronounced “Pan” all repeated three times, to confirm intentionality of message.
    Also worth of mention to many pilots that, when requested about “Fuel on Board” state the Estimated Endurance, the controllers don’t care about that, but simply want to know “How big a fire you are going to make” in case of crash, so that they can dispatch fire equipment in accordance.
    Excellent discussion…!!!

  • Gordon says:

    I have not read all the comments so I apologize if I am just repeating. The FAA does have a good document beyond the AIM. It is for controllers but it complies with international phraseology. It is document “ORDER
    JO 7110.10” from Air Traffic Organization Policy on faa.gov. It has an emergency section covering mayday and pan pan. My takeaway is, mayday for fires and imminent danger where the aircraft may not make it back to the airport or may go off the runway. Pan pan for everything else. That is what we are teaching now.

  • Patrick says:

    Declaring an Emergency

    That is absolutely clear to EVERY EOROPEAN PILOT !!
    Why is it clear.
    Because we have to pass a Theory Course and a Practical Radiotelephony Course
    And we have to pass a Theory Test and a Practical Radiotelephony Test.
    And we have to follow THE RULES OF ICAO in the Manual of Radiotelephony DOCEMENT 9432 !
    The problem is that a U.S. PILOT never learns to do Radiotelephony correctly because they only learn it from the Flightinstructor who also never learned it correctly.

    • Gordon says:

      Agreed. This has been an issue in the US forever. At my airline we started using mayday but now it is mayday for everything. A few of us are trying to differentiate between mayday and pan pan. In many jurisdictions a mayday call will start a process expecting a mass casualty incident. A few pilots here think a pan call will not get them ARFF/CFR. Of course it does.

      • Murray says:

        A very good point. A lot of sim instructors now more or less discount the PAN PAN call on the basis that “in some undeveloped places they won’t recognise it”. Which is nonsense. My own airline now mandates a Mayday for engine failure on a twin, which I believe is not always appropriate. Either call gets an immediate response and priority handling but they communicate a different degree of threat.

  • Neil Dorgan says:

    ATC have the ASSIST mnemonic to help respond to Maydays

    ACKNOWLEDGE the Mayday/Pan call

    SEPARATE other traffic that is in the way or may become a conflict if the emergency needs to e.g. descend or turn back towards the field. If possible provide an empty piece of airspace around the emergency to manoeuvre as required.

    SILENCE. Balance to discuss here. Are calls to other aircraft to get them off the frequency distracting? Does the emergency want to take a frequency change to their own frequency with no one else on it?

    INFORM people who need to know: supervisor, neighbouring sectors, tower/approach if the aircraft needs to come back.

    SUPPORT pilots by having information or options available if they ask. Distance to diversion airports, runway lengths, weather.

    TIME. Thirty seconds of silence from an emergency aircraft feels like 5 minutes to a controller who wants to take control and help now, now, now! 5 minutes of checklists and analysis on the flight deck might feel like thirty seconds. Give the crew time to work without distraction.

  • marty rollinger says:

    Let’s all commit to taking the “Dear ATC” comments to our home airport tower controllers. I ensure it happens are our local airport.
    Great discussion.

  • Steve says:

    The Maday call is actually an internationally known speech act. It is performative and that matters in aviation. Not all words have the same effect, especially in aviation that crosses so many cultures around the world. Using synonyms or circumlocutory expressions doesn’t cut it as it means taking a chance that informal understanding will work. Remember the loose use of confusing phraseology that doomed two packed 747s in Teneriffe. Best to stick to the classic Mayday.

  • Pat D Hemspilot says:

    Hey, great discussion. Former USN pilot now operating HEMS in Australia. Completely agree on the “take a breath” comment. Its valuable for pilots and ATC…get some Oxygen to your brain and think for a few seconds before starting checklists/procedures in the aircraft or in the Tower. My advice to pilots is that MAYDAY’s (MAYDAY x 3) or PAN-PAN’s (PAN-PAN x 3) are free…if you declare the MAYDAY, it can always be downgraded later…but it gets EVERYONES attention now! I look forward to more along these lines.

    • Wolfgang says:

      Never downgrade Mayday in the vicinity of the airport. Once mayday keep mayday

        • Edward Miller says:

          What would be of tremendous value is to run excersies where a ATC training facility is linked to simulator excersies with observers present. That is pilot observers in ATC and ATC observers in simulators. And run scenarios observe collated and studied and published. Done through multiple environments.
          Should be interesting

      • HellKrll says:

        That’s wrong. If it’s an emergency and you have gotten things under better control you should downgrade it to a Pan Pan. In China they shut everything down for you when you declare a Mayday. You might be out there just dumping fuel with things stabilized meanwhile nothing is taking off or landing. There will be consequences.

  • Fedor Romero says:

    Thank you very much for the session, as an air traffic controller i learned a lot about the pilot’s point of view about emergencies. It was interesting getting to know all the experiences and participate in the debate about these type of unexpected situations for pilots and ATC.

  • Chris Gilgen says:

    Excellent messages coming through here and a real pity that I couldn’t join you yesterday (I am a European ATCO with over 30 years ATC-OPS). Great to put the emphasis on using MAYDAY or PAN PAN and to insist that these are “trigger words” for ATC to start procedures/traffic handling (according to ICAO rules). Yes, US pilots have this tendency to “declare an emergency”, we Europeans know that. Forget it please – just say MAYDAY MAYDAY straight away, as this clarifies a lot and there is no ambuguity possible. Second excellent point is on the (US) insistance to obtain IMMEDIATELY the souls on board or the fuel remaining from an aircraft in emergency. Please spare the busy crew of this within the first 5 minutes. I know, if you get as ATCO a MAYDAY call on your sector you must call your watch supervisor and inform her/him immediately – and I know that they will come to your working position pressuring you to obtain souls and fuel aboard from the crew. But please calm all down and say to the SUP “wait, this is not the priority for now, give them some time”. Really an excellent initiative to create mutual knowledge and awareness between air crews and ATC!

    • Mark Zee says:

      Hi Chris! Thanks, excellent points! That very topic came up on the call as well – pressure from the Supervisor to get those details, because it’s top of their list. But yes, 5 minutes of freedom for the crew is better! We will do more of these, hope you can join … (sign up here to get a direct invite: https://eepurl.com/h6yoaj)

  • Andy Barry says:

    Mark, that was an outstanding session. Lets do this again. Even the same topic. I think hearing and talking through the misconceptions of the “other side of the mic” reveals so much valuable knowledge to gained by all. Looking forward to the continued conversations like this and perhaps an expanded summary of some of those realizations we talked through. Cheers.

    • Mark Zee says:

      Thanks Andy, was great to have you on and also really interesting to hear about your aircraft and mission! Please come to the next one! We are going to run more Pilot & ATC events for sure.

  • David Bickmore says:

    spot on !
    excellant program, and synopsis..

  • Paul Nugent says:

    If in doubt and obviously a case of something really not right etc Say MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY and STANDBY is a must!! If you’ve got the problem under control you can always downgrade to a PAN. You’ll still get the same treatment but everyone can concentrate on the aircraft and not get rushed into making it more difficult for the pilots. ATC still get the panick when they hear the word MAYDAY as they’re human as all of us. Help them out as much as they help you out.

  • Anika Warner says:

    Thank you very much for this. In your AtC wishlist you say you don’t want to land right away. Thanks for the info . Controllers first instinct in an emergency is to get the aircraft on the ground. So that is very helpful. However you should still emphasize that the aircraft should be made a priority. In addition things can change quickly so even though he may not want to get on the ground immediately something else may go wrong and you may need to get the aircraft on the ground. I believe that is be the difference between PAN and MAYDAY. If you say MAYDAY it tells me life ( could be a heart attack on board) or the aircraft is in IMMEDIATE Danger and I NEED to get you on the ground. Saying PAN PAN PAN says there is an issue and I need priority but I have to run the processes analyse make a plan and I will get back to you. I have a question, because a controller still has to plan, and there are some airspaces where there is no radar so I can’t see what you’re doing. So if a Pilot says Mayday or Pan is it still a huge distraction if the controller acknowledges the call and asks your intentions? Eg: “Shamrock123 mayday acknowledged, state your intentions.” Would that be acceptable.
    The souls and fuel should really be a non issue because another controller should simply call the company or get the information from the supplementary part of the flight plan. There is absolutely no need to ask the pilot that question.
    I enjoyed the discussion.

    • David Harrison says:

      The crew cannot state their intentions in those first few minutes. They need to deal with the issue first, which includes running the appropriate checklists. Then, and only then, will they start to run through a decision making process about what they are going to do e.g. continue, divert somewhere else, or return to the airport. It is likely that they will have some sort of emergency SID that will keep them close to the departure airport until a final decision has been made.

      • Richard J Fitt says:

        Pilots may be reluctant to declare MAYDAY or PAN so this is an important discussion.
        More often than not the crew needs time to sort out the problem and “Standby” would indicate that.
        But if there’s a fire on board getting the aircraft on the ground is the priority, even if all the checklists cannot be completed.

      • Anika Warner says:

        @David Harrison, In all the examples we looked at I think the pilots stated their intentions in the call. The shamrock 123 said he was climbing straight ahead standby. That clearly said his intention was to keep climbing straight on the heading he was. The cargo example asked to return to Haneda or Narita. So some indication of their intention was given. I totally understand that there is a heavy workload but some sort of intention must be given to ATC. Look at it from ATC’s point of view. They have all these aircraft to separate. They give instructions to each one based on the instructions given to the rest. If ATC has no idea whatsoever what this aircraft will do how do they protect it. In a radar setting you can see the aircraft and turn other aircraft away from it . But ATC would have to give some sort of instruction or rather information to alert the pilot of the mayday that there is traffic in this other sector so he can avoid itor stay in the sector he is currently in. Nobody want the mayday or pan call to be resolved just to bang into another aircraft. What about airspaces where there is no radar, only procedural. If ATC has no idea what this pilot intends to do that’s a real issue . So intentions to return to the field or continue straight ahead, climb or descend is helpful so ATC can protect that flight from others. So some sort of intention should be stated.

        • Mark Zee says:

          Hi Anika!

          Each situation is different of course, and there would be no harm in asking the aircraft “confirm intentions” if you really need it for traffic separation. What we tend to see in 90% of cases is that ATC ask a lot of questions right off the bat, and I think David is right – other than “we’re going straight ahead to 3000” there’s not much more they know at that first moment. So it’s a safe bet to find a “safety box” to put them in, if it’s procedural, hand them off to radar for vectors, or as a last reort give a local hold? Good things to discuss!

          • Anika Warner says:

            Hi Mark,
            Hopefully there can be more discussions like this. Like you said every situation is different. In any emergency ATC will want to help the best they can . If a few minutes of silence can help, then sure, I’m sure every controller will be glad to do so. In the few emergencies I have seen in person the pilots quickly say what they want to do. They’ve lost an engine and wish to return to the field, they’re smelling smoke in the cockpit and wish to return to the field, they’ve lost power in both engines and wish to return. Even had a helicopter say he was low on fuel and where was the nearest field he could land cause he doesn’t think he will make it to the airport. Those are obviously different situations from where something goes bang in the cockpit and the pilot isn’t sure what is wrong. So if in that case silence is what’s needed I’m sure controllers will oblige. Unfortunately, in our airspace there is no radar to hand off the aircraft too. 🤷 Hopefully soon. In addition my airspace is really tiny. Ten minutes to the boundary. I think also sometimes more training for controllers on emergencies would be good. Especially if pilots are included so we all get a well rounded view.

  • Chris K says:

    Excellent thread! Keep up the good work…

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