Suppose I'm flying VFR in class G (uncontrolled) airspace, monitoring the local CTAF frequency while doing so. Maybe I'm alone in doing circuits around the local airport, or maybe I'm practicing navigating by landmarks, or maybe I'm on a cross-country flight from A to B. Either way, there is no one else in the immediate vicinity making themselves known on the radio, and (unlike in controlled airspace) there's no obvious ground station that I can call and expect to get an answer from.

Now, I, or someone else onboard, spots a fire on the ground some distance away.

A good first step then seems obvious, to go closer to get a better look. Now suppose that, on closer inspection, this does indeed appear to be an out-of-control fire with no firefighters on site. This could mean either that nobody yet knows about it, or that rescue services have been alerted but are still on their way.

It could be a structural fire, or a forest/field/grassland/etc. fire. To the extent that this makes a relevant distinction, it'd be great if answers addressed both types. (Both of these have happened recently in my immediate area, though I don't think they were initially reported by aviators.)

For me, a thousand feet or more above ground, what's the next step?

The aircraft isn't in any immediate danger, so from the perspective of the aircraft and its occupants, it's not an emergency or even urgency situation. However, there's certainly risk to property, and possibly people, on the ground.

Should I dial in 121.5 on the radio and call mayday? Or pan-pan on 121.5? Or should I use some other frequency, such as that of the local area control if I were to climb straight up into controlled airspace? (They would also be monitoring 121.5, so I would effectively be reaching the same people.) Mayday, pan-pan, or not? Or something else entirely?

Not doing anything in particular and just going on with my day doesn't seem like the right thing to do in such a situation.

Looking at my radiotelephony textbook, urgency traffic (pan-pan) includes situations relating to the safety of a "vehicle" (not just the aircraft, but specifically including any aircraft) or for a person onboard or within sight, but that do not require immediate assistance. Emergency traffic (mayday) includes situations involving "serious and/or immediate danger" (unspecified as to what) where immediate assistance is required.

I'm interested primarily in answers pertaining to the EU.

  • $\begingroup$ Are we talking about a forest/field/grassland fire here, or a structural fire? $\endgroup$ Commented May 20, 2018 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ @UnrecognizedFallingObject Good point. I pretty much had in mind both, but have edited to clarify that. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ As a marine radio operator, I'd use a Securite call to convey information of safety importance to others. Not sure whether that's equally well understood in aviation, though. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ And I think times have changed. Not that long ago, a call to a controller at an ARTCC might be met with "um, so?" Whereas the last 10+ years there's become a much greater appreciation about how a localized fire can quickly become a regional disaster costing lives and many millions in damage. So you are much more likely to get serious interest now. $\endgroup$
    – Max R
    Commented Sep 2, 2022 at 1:49

6 Answers 6


This has happened several times and each time I was able to reach a local approach facility. Prior to GPS, I would circle above the event, and approach would get a pretty good fix. One time it was a propane facility near the uncontrolled airport I was flying out of at night. Shortly there after, when the flames shot above 4500 feet, the tower saw it form 20 miles away, visually.

One of the more interesting events was one early spring, when I was crossing the Finger Lakes in New York, and saw two snowmobiles go through the thin ice. I hung around for the recovery, and everyone was pulled out of the water alive. In that instance, (Rochester) approach kept asking for updates, as they were talking with the fire departments, who were trying to find the best ice for their approach to the snowmobilers.

In my experience, I have always been able to reach approach. However if approach was not available, enroute or FSS, and as a last resort, local unicoms.

When flying for the state conservation department, we did radio in fires, as part of the job expectation.

For those looking for more guidance, might I suggest something like:

Cessna345: Approach, Cessna 12345, 20 miles south, near Geneseo VOR, with two snowmobiles through the ice on the lake, 5 miles southeast of the VOR. Three souls observed in the water.

Apch: Cessna 345, squawk 4311, ident, say altitude. How long ago did this happen.

Cessna345: About 2 minutes prior to my call up. 1500.

Apch: Any other snowmobilers in the area?

Cessna345: No, not at the north end of the lake.

Apch: Fire is being dispatched from both sides of the lake, would you say the swimmers are closer to the east or west shore.

Cessna345: East shore, advise fire that I am circling above the swimmers, with landing lights on.

and so on.

Addendum: The question asked about uncontrolled airspace, and while there may be uncontrolled airspace even in areas of radar and ATC coverage, it is useful to discuss what to do when ATC coverage is more sparse. The objective is to communicate to authorities so that fire services can be dispatched to control the fire, and alert people who might be in harms way. My suggestion, as a CFI and as someone who has flown the northeast corridor as well as rather desolate portions of the earth, is to establish communication with anyone on the ground as soon as practical. If you can reach any FSS or ATC facility, I would contact them first. If unable, and if nearby (considering your altitude) I would try airports with unicom/multicom frequencies listed. You might alter your flight to get you closer to civilization and potential contact points. In Northern Canada, as an example, there are many well equipped airports which are not charted, but support mining operations. I carried a list of their frequencies shared with me by regional pilots. Barring that, I would make calls on 121.5. There may not be any facilities around which are in range for 121.5, but there are likely airlines and military flights which monitor 121.5, particularly in cruise. It is not uncommon to use other aircraft to relay information, and short concise messages help. If one has HF or a SATphone, then the radio game is different. In extremely sparse areas, a fire may only be of advisory interest, so do not expose yourself to increased risk to report it.


I ended up asking my instructor about this.

His answer: If you aren't already talking to ATC, then switch to whatever frequency Control can be reached at in that location at the lowest controlled airspace altitude (which in the case of Sweden typically means whatever the local frequency for Sweden Control is at 5000 ft AMSL and above), climb in place if necessary to reach them, and make a normal transmission (not "mayday" or "pan-pan") letting them know what's going on and where, and take it from there.

The general rationale is that the aircraft is not in any danger, so it isn't justified to call mayday or pan-pan. Since the aircraft is in class G airspace, it's likely also away from the nearest controlled airport, so the controllers handling the airspace around the nearest airport are unlikely to be able to help more than those at Control. (Of course, if one needs to climb through controlled airspace to reach Control, it's probably worth talking to whoever controls that airspace.)

It's certainly possible at that point that Control might hand you off to a more local controller if they make the determination that doing so is beneficial.

  • $\begingroup$ I think a Mayday would be appropriate if smoke was obscuring visibility, especially if you're not IFR qualified - the same way suddenly flying into a cloud might be. If you can't see, you're liable to get inverted and fly into the ground. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Commented Mar 24, 2020 at 2:53

If you're just wandering around VFR in uncontrolled airspace in the boonies, I would call in on whatever frequency is used for VFR enroute purposes in the EU and tell them what you are seeing and where it is, and go on with your day. If you are out of radio range but there is cell phone service, then call whatever regional control or flight information unit is applicable and tell someone.

Definitely not a Mayday (generally means you're about the crash, and people will get very excited) or PAN (which means you have something urgent that is flight related and needs priority over other communications, and people will get a little bit excited). A possible forest fire on the ground doesn't come to that level in my opinion.

  • $\begingroup$ "whatever frequency is used for VFR enroute purposes" would be the local CTAF, which we already established at least doesn't have anyone else actively making themselves known. It's much easier when you're in airspace that requires two-way radio communications; just call up whoever you're already talking to and let them know. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 10:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Well, I suppose if it's serious enough you could broadcast a call on 121.5 and say "PAN PAN PAN xxxx on guard frequency" . Chances are an airliner in range will answer. ("guard frequency" tells whoever hears it you are knowingly broadcasting on 121.5 for non-emergency purposes). I would do that before breaking in on an enroute IFR frequency. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ I have no idea what you mean by "enroute IFR frequency". Controlled airspace here is basically anything above 5000 ft AMSL, and significant chunks of airspace lower than that near a lot of airports. There is no requirement to fly IFR there, but anytime you're in such airspace there's obviously a specific ground station that you're already in contact with. That's not the point of my question. The question is what to do when there isn't an obvious ground station to talk to, yet you encounter something unrelated to your flight which likely warrants a response from emergency services. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 17:50
  • $\begingroup$ I meant if there was no VHF ground station in range because you're in a remote area, but there was the possibility of climbing and contacting an area control center that is handling IFR enroute traffic. Anyway, so if you are out of range of VHF communication with any kind of VFR facility, cruising along in the middle of nowhere, well the answer is nothing until you get to where you can, or when you can use your cell phone. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 1:40
  • $\begingroup$ There is no need for "PAN PAN", but you can use 121.5. maybe something like "121.5 N12ab3 at 4000ft, reporting large [structural, forest, grass, etc] fire on the ground near location xyz." wait for a response and refine the location. $\endgroup$
    – Max Power
    Commented Mar 23, 2020 at 20:42

Keep it simple, 121.5 can be used for this rather than fumbling through a list of possible frequencies. People get the idea that 121/5 is "emergencies only" but far from it 121.5 is for all occasions when you don't know the local frequency and time is a factor. Something like "121.5 N12ab3 at 4000ft, reporting large [structural, forest, grass, etc] fire on the ground near location xyz." wait for a response and refine the location. As this is aviation, the initial XYZ should probably be a published fix or waypoint just to quickly narrow down the sector.

If you get no response then try to find an approach or center frequency on a chart (many GPS will list nearby options) and try that. Flight-service stations [where you would file a flightplan in the air] are another option, while most connect to an operator many states away they can relay the information or provide you with a local frequency.

Include what is on fire and approximate size, it is possible that the burn is actually permitted and more controlled than it appears. Just give the location as accurate as possible, use major visual landmarks, distance and radial from a VOR, lat and long(paper chart or gps), as much as you can muster.

I have reported fires to a local control tower on the normal tower frequency as I was already communicating with them to enter their airspace, and in this case you may get the benefit of radar contact for the position.


Who you call doesn't depend on whether you're in controlled airspace, but whether you can reach them may. Call whoever you would call for anything in that general area, and if they can't hear/see you (usually why airspace is uncontrolled), then climb until they can.

Even if there are ground forces on the way to deal with the problem, you should still report it to ATC/FIS if it presents a hazard to navigation due to smoke, severe updrafts, etc.

If there is no ground response, you might also call 112/911/999/etc on a cell phone, if you're getting a signal, and be ready with the lat/lon since they likely won't understand other aviation lingo.


I think I'd definitely find someone to talk to that could relay the information to the police/state police and let them work it on the ground with the appropriate fire department. Approach nearest the fire might be a good start. Class D, Class C, Class B area might be good. Lot of those in my area, my airport is under a Class B 30 mile veil for example, I talk to approach all the time for going anywhere.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In the USA: I'd personally start with Flight Service: 122.2. Especially during VFR weather, they usually don't have a lot going on; they're not directly responsible for traffic, and can figure out how to call local fire/police. $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented May 21, 2018 at 20:45

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