Story Time:

Let's assume, for the sake of the question, that you were piloting a twin engine plane and the right engine, out of the blue, shuts down.

After realizing it you declare emergency, and explain very briefly to the ATC what is your situation at the moment, and after that you start to work out the checklists (I don't know the right order to proceed on a emergency scenario, but i don't think that it's important to this question).

After that you managed well the situation and safely landed the plane.

So here is my question:

At the moment of the emergency you weren't able to explain with details everything that happened to the ATC.

  • According to FAA, is it required to detail/explain (maybe file some kind of official document) your emergency to some kind of authority?
  • If you do have to file an explanation, what information do you have to supply?
  • Also what would happen if they "didn't believe" that situation was an emergency?
  • $\begingroup$ You don't even have to declare an emergency to get one. I have had to incidences were they ask if I was declaring an emergency. In one instance I said no, in the other case I said I was making a precautionary landing. In both cases ATC went ahead and declared an emergency anyway. $\endgroup$
    – jwzumwalt
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 11:03

6 Answers 6


The order is "Aviate, Navigate, Communicate".

As a pilot, your first responsibility is to keep the plane flying. After that it is to avoid hitting something or to avoid getting lost. After that comes communication. There are many instances of in-flight emergencies where the pilots never talked to anybody about it, because they were busy flying the plane...

According to FAA, is it required to detail/explain (maybe file some kind of official document) your emergency to some kind of authority?

The FAA has many procedures on reporting accidents, incidents, and emergencies. Whether or not you report it depends on what the emergency was. If its a very sick passenger, there may be no reporting required. If your control cables failed, you are required to report it. I'll update this answer with the regulations as soon as I find them all. Quick answer is any time you declare an emergency or "PAN-PAN", call the FSDO and let them know. Also depending on the nature of the accident/incident, you may be required to immediately notify the NTSB. See CFR 49 830.5

If you do have to file an explanation, what information do you have to supply?

This depends again on the nature of the emergency, and the FSDO/NTSB will ask you for the proper information when you file the report. At the very least they are probably going to want a narrative of what happened, and depending on what took place, you may want to contact your lawyer first. (Note: You may have to contact the NTSB immediately but it doesn't say you need to provide details, just that there was an incident, so the NTSB would be your first call "I had an incident", short and sweet, and the lawyer second.)

Also what would happen if they "didn't believe" that situation was an emergency?

Its not ATC's responsibility to determine if you are lying or not. When you as a pilot say "emergency" you have their full attention. After you get on the ground and the emergency turns out to be you forgot to call your girlfriend/wife and wanted to get ahead of other traffic, then the FAA will get involved. Until you are on the ground, an emergency is handled as priority, regardless of the reason.

Here you can read a good story about a stupid pilot who abused the "emergency" system by landing on a public beach in New York because of an airsick passenger and an engine that was "running a teensy bit rough". He didn't officially declare an emergency, and I can't find any record of official enforcement action against him for doing that. Note the NTSB did not investigate this "incident".

  • 15
    $\begingroup$ As I read your response to the quote about 'believing' the pilot, I thought to myself "Pilots know that ATC isn't some locker-room joke-fest; no one would frivolously declare an emergency." Then I read your last paragraph lost a small amount of faith in humanity. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 15:15
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ Its not ATC's responsibility to determine if you are lying or not. When you as a pilot say "emergency" you have their full attention. aaand then there's this $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 7:17
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @OrangeDog As far as the reports I've read are, he said the words "precautionary landing" and ATC considered it an emergency and dispatched police, so while the pilot didn't declare it, ATC basically did it for him. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 14:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @TomMcW Thats a good example of how to get disciplinary action being a controller. While the pilot didn't properly identify himself he certainly knew that there was a plane on the runway evacuating and still questioned the issue. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Beyer
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 14:23
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "Aviate, Navigate, Communicate", that's the important bit. And the fact that in all cases the pilot is the decision maker. ATC is just there to facilitate. If you say "I need to land now" ATC should "drop everything" and help you land safely. Once your on the ground it could get interesting. $\endgroup$
    – coteyr
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 16:13

Per 14 CFR 91.3, you only have to provide more details if the FAA asks for them:

§91.3 Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.


(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.

(c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.

But per 49 CFR 830.5 you have to notify the NTSB immediately (instructions here) if various specific incidents occur:

§830.5 Immediate notification.

The operator of any civil aircraft, or any public aircraft not operated by the Armed Forces or an intelligence agency of the United States, or any foreign aircraft shall immediately, and by the most expeditious means available, notify the nearest National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) office when:

(a) An aircraft accident or any of the following listed serious incidents occur: [...]

Engine failure in a large multi-engine aircraft is only reportable if two or more engines fail.

In the general aviation world, if there's no damage to people or property then incidents or accidents rarely lead to any action from the FAA and they mostly aren't reported to the NTSB (because they don't have to be). Filing an ASRS report is often a good idea, especially if the FAA does decide to investigate.

I have no idea about the airline world, but it's safe to say that any incident is taken a lot more seriously and handled a lot more formally, even minor ones. Although all in-flight emergencies are handled in the same way by ATC, whether they're airline flights or not.

  • $\begingroup$ "Upon the request of the Administrator", means that ATC has your tail number and passes it to the FSDO, the FSDO can contact you if they want more information. So you are not required to contact them other than in response to a request. Accidents and serious incidents are totally independent of your use of the emergency clause to deviate from the default operating rules. Minor incidences in airlines are generally handled internally, they have roughly the same reporting requirements as GA, however their internal handling of an incidence is dictated by FAA approved operational specifications. $\endgroup$
    – Max Power
    Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 20:15

My understanding in the US is that controllers will frequently consider an emergency that is handled well and has a successful outcome as a non-event.

Among the reasons:

  • Less paperwork for the Pilot
  • Less review of the controllers work!
    (Once the emergency is reviewed, the smallest mistake in phraseology can come up)
  • It encourages people to fly safe by letting them declare an emergency without any consequences.

I've personally seen a pilot declare an emergency because:
"One cylinder is running a little hotter than the others".
He landed just fine, and didn't have to file anything.

Its better to declare an emergency and get extra attention in case the situation gets worse than it is to avoid declaring just because you're afraid of paperwork, and end up dead.

  • $\begingroup$ "declaring an emergency" is mostly a CYA situation and as a courtesy to help ATC know to expect non-normal actions,(and so they can provide extra assistance. There isn't an explicit regulation about declaring it, 91.3 does not say anything about declaring one, only that the the pilot may deviate from normal op. rules at their discretion to the extent required to mitigate the perceived hazard. Now, refusing to give ATC info when you have a functioning radio and moderate workload may be considered outside the "extent required", but this is only implied by an extension of other operating rules. $\endgroup$
    – Max Power
    Commented Mar 16, 2022 at 20:30

Here in the US under the FAA if you say something to the extent of

N12543 Declaring an Emergency

You have declared an emergency, no further explanation is necessary while you are in the air, they will always trust you and you will have priority over all other aircraft. Since you are now an aircraft under duress you can ask things of the controller that you may not otherwise be able to ask like "please clear RW24 for a straight in approach" or "where is the nearest airfield and can you clear the runway" etc.

Often times in declaring an emergency its in your best interest to provide a brief description to the controller for your own safety. For example if you say

N12543 Fire in the Cockpit where is the nearest airfield?

They will dispatch a fire crew (if available) or any similar situation that may require emergency services.

Now you are on the ground safely, there is some stuff you need to do. You should contact your local FSDO to report the accident then you must file a report with the FAA/NTSB you can find the instructions on how to do this here. The full form can be found here and is fairly verbose (it outlines what you need to report/the kind of explanation you need to give). Once this has been done the NTSB will investigate the incident which depending on the nature of the incident can take time.

I was always taught in flight school to err on the side of caution when it came to declaring. That falls in the "better safe than sorry" mind set.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ air → err? (I know this is aviation, but still ;-) .) $\endgroup$
    – E.P.
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 21:10
  • $\begingroup$ And by "the side of caution" you mean, "when unsure, do declare", I presume? $\endgroup$
    – CompuChip
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 9:48
  • $\begingroup$ Yes exactly, generally (unless is something really outlandish) you wont get blamed for declaring even if its something small. $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 20:54

From my knowledge, all you have to do to declare an emergency is to announce it over the radio.

This gets you priority for the traffic controller responsible for your area. They may further ask you questions, to coordinate any emergency services that you may require, or to further help them in their duties guiding you.

For example, if you have a co-pilot incapacitated they may put further spacing between you and other aircraft in the sequence in order to give you more time to go through the landing checklists and procedures.

Or if you have a medical emergency they may ask in order to inform the airport to ready the emergency services; or if a mechanical issue they may coordinate with the airport for a full stop on the runway, etc.

However all of that is strictly optional. As in an emergency situation your first priority is to fly the aircraft; therefore ATC will understand if you are not very chatty on the radio, etc.


I'm going to keep this short and sweet because other answers have caught most of the information, but everyone appears to have missed this minor detail:

§91.183 IFR communications.

Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, the pilot in command of each aircraft operated under IFR in controlled airspace must ensure that a continuous watch is maintained on the appropriate frequency and must report the following as soon as possible—

(a) The time and altitude of passing each designated reporting point, or the reporting points specified by ATC, except that while the aircraft is under radar control, only the passing of those reporting points specifically requested by ATC need be reported;

(b) Any unforecast weather conditions encountered; and

(c) Any other information relating to the safety of flight.

This only applies to IFR flight, and one could argue that the emergency itself could cancel out this very rule by power of 91.3(b).

It's almost like a grandfather paradox.

  • $\begingroup$ I was taught that rule meant I had to notify ATC about anything that could affect the safety of other aircraft. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Commented Mar 17, 2022 at 1:29

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