If I'm watching an aircraft fly overhead and it becomes apparent to me that it is failing, what action can I take in response to this incident?

For now I will leave this question generic as to location, but if it becomes necessary to narrow it down I am interested in the US specifically.

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    $\begingroup$ Take video and youtube it. Seriously it can help an investigation if something really bad happens. It will also be a good learning material to prevent accidents in the future? $\endgroup$ – vasin1987 Mar 1 '15 at 9:31
  • $\begingroup$ @vasin1987 That might actually be worthy of another answer. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Jun 5 '15 at 13:41

Honestly, very little.

First, be clear as to whether you are actually see something failing. If you see flames, or a wing has broken off, then yes, it's a problem. However, if you see someone doing a slow spiral towards an empty field with the power idling, they're more likely to be practicing engine out procedures (something that's required for all US pilots to practice and demonstrate during their checkride for their certificate).

In the event that you actually see an impact, fire, off-airport landing and so on, call 911 and give them your location. They'll send the appropriate crews.

Otherwise, if the aircraft is still flying, there's a strong chance the pilot(s) are already talking to ATC about their problem, if it actually exists. There's nothing you really can or need to do in this case.

Quick Anecdote: I've been told the story of a local police department who gets phone calls virtually every time a citizen lands his small airplane in his private field. Fire/police/medics/etc are summoned, when absolutely nothing bad has happened. This is why you should make an attempt to verify that a problem actually exists before reporting it.

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    $\begingroup$ Quite right. Unless you see them on fire, a wing falling off, or actually crashing with parts breaking and fire and smoke, then don't do anything. More than likely there isn't anything wrong. $\endgroup$ – Ralgha Dec 18 '13 at 6:03
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    $\begingroup$ Great answer! Hopefully, this will help people avoid calling 911 too soon. $\endgroup$ – called2voyage Dec 18 '13 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ I'd also suggest that you stay out from under it. $\endgroup$ – user449 Jan 9 '14 at 19:43

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