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How often does an aircraft make a mayday call?

I assume when confronted with an emergency on board, they will first deal with it, and not waste time contacting any one who would not be able to help anyway. And when they have time for such a call, there's no emergency anymore.

So, when does making a mayday call make sense?

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    $\begingroup$ Your assumption that ATC can't help anyways is incorrect. They can help in tons of ways: Clearing airspace for you, offloading navigational burden by providing radar vectors, assist in gathering information, alert rescue services, and the list goes on. $\endgroup$ – Waked Dec 20 '17 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ You have two questions "how common are mayday calls?" and "when does making a mayday call make sense?". Should these be separate questions? $\endgroup$ – Dan Pichelman Dec 20 '17 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ There are tons and tons of different types of emergencies. Some require dealing with right here, right now (for example, fire in the cockpit would qualify), while some are immediate threats to the safety of the flight but don't necessarily make the aircraft immediately unsafe (say, loss of all engine power; needs to be dealt with and may require e.g. clearing airspace for gliding, but you've got time to deal with it). Remember: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. Keep the plane flying, keep it flying where you want it to go, and only with those taken care of do you talk to others about it. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 20 '17 at 15:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling And a great way to navigate in an emergency is to call ATC and get radar vectors and other instructions and have them find suitable diversion airports. So it's not clear cut as a catchy phrase makes it out to be. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Dec 20 '17 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ @user71659 Absolutely! However, in an emergency situation, I think of the "navigate" in "aviate, navigate, communicate" more as in "keep the plane from colliding with features of the big lump below that is doing its best to collide with the plane at 10 m/s²". In other words, avoiding CFIT, and in VMC VFR avoiding other traffic. I'm not at all slighting the idea of reaching out for help in figuring out where to go and how (e.g. radar vectoring, flight following), or for that matter figuring out where you are. I'd do it in a heartbeat myself, if I needed it then. It sure beats the alternative. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 20 '17 at 18:29
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From the point of view of a private pilot, the answer is that mayday calls are not terrifically common. I've certainly never heard one made in anger in a couple of hundred flying hours.

However your assumptions are correct in parts and wrong in others. First lets define what an emergency requiring a possible mayday call is, which answers your question about when it makes sense.

Mayday - A condition of being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance.

That said, some of your assumption is correct:

I assume when confronted with an emergency on board, they will first deal with it

Absolutely! Pilots are taught to "Aviate, Navigate, Communicate" in that order. Any emergency while airborne requires you to keep the aircraft flying as a first priority. You'll notice Communicate is last after "knowing where you are and where you're going" (Navigate).

not waste time contacting any one who would not be able to help anyway

As pointed out in comments, this is an incorrect assumption. Once the pilot has some bandwidth to communicate there are numerable ways ATC could help in an emergency, such as (but not limited to):

  • Clearing surrounding airspace
  • Aiding with navigation, such as giving vectors to the nearest runway
  • Prioritizing landings
  • Helping you once you're (hopefully) safely on the ground - see below.

And when they have time for such a call, there's no emergency anymore.

Again, an incorrect assumption. Take the example of an engine failure. The aviate part calls for you to set up for maximum glide ratio, and do some checks to see if you can restart your engine. The navigate part could require you to find a suitable field to make an emergency landing. At this point (depending on your altitude) you might have a number of minutes before touchdown. Here's where you tell ATC the problem ("Mayday mayday mayday. G-ABCD, engine failure, 2 miles east of [city], 2,000 ft heading 180 degrees. emergency landing on field beside [big road]"). This has the benefit that they can communicate with emergency services - or at very least send someone out in a car to help you.

As you can see from the above example. The emergency still persists once the pilot has time to tell ATC about it.

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