I'm curious as to what would happen to a pilot should they falsely declare an emergency to expedite their landing.

By 'falsely' or 'unnecessarily' I mean that the hypothetical pilot is not experiencing anything abnormal, has adequate fuel onboard, is in perfect VFR conditions, and all souls on board are conscious and in good health. In other words, lying about an emergency status to make their landing more convenient or expedient.

Obviously the absence of a real emergency (and the pilot's knowledge of this) would have to be proven (after all, if the pilot even feels like the safety of the flight is compromised, they can and should declare an emergency and be given full benefit of the doubt), but let's assume for our purposes that the pilot simply admits upon landing that there was no emergency and they were aware of that fact, and that information eventually makes its way to the FAA.

Would the pilot lose their license, be grounded for a time, or face civil punishment? Is it addressed on a case-by-case basis, or is there a prescribed punishment? Has this ever happened before?

I'm interested in the consequences for either private pilots, commercial, or both. Though I'm sure the difference with commercial pilots would be reprimand or termination from the airline, on top of whatever civil punishments exist.

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    $\begingroup$ Somewhat related: Do you have to explain what your emergency is? $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ You are wrong that "emergency services are almost always dispatched to the aircraft". Many declared emergencies are handled successfully, and result in a safe, normal landing. I once saw a pilot declare an emergency because one cylinder temperature indicator was "higher than I expected it to be". He got full ATC attention, but landed normally, taxied to parking, and that was the end of it. $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @abelenky Corrected in the edit $\endgroup$
    – user25931
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 18:42
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    $\begingroup$ Still not correct: After most successful emergency landings, there is no paperwork or explanation of any kind needed. See aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/29115/… $\endgroup$
    – abelenky
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 19:35
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    $\begingroup$ Didn't RyanAir do this? I remember reading that 3 pilots 'diverted' to a Spanish airport within a few days of each other $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 10:12

3 Answers 3


My experience is it is whether ATC files a complaint against you. It has to be pretty serious for them to do that. It works both ways, pilots rarely report ATC mistakes and so there is a gentleman's agreement to not sweat the small stuff. I have had ATC try to kill me at least 4 or 5 times and I never saw the need to report it. I figured the controller already knew the seriousness of it and if a supervisor noticed it, more than enough bad things would happen to them.

Just to be fair, I have screwed up seriously twice. I misunderstood instructions in flying over Vancouver International in Canada and flew right in front of landing traffic. The second occurrence was when I was flying a twin. I got really busy after the controller unexpectedly routed me to a different runway during approach to Anchorage International, I switched tower frequencies for the new runway and forgot to get "cleared for landing" with the new tower frequency. In both cases the controllers very sternly told me what I had done wrong but never reported it.

In 1975 I had ATC file a complaint with my flight school when I was a student. I turned off the engine when it was obvious I had a 10-15min wait for takeoff. I later found out the FARs require at least one engine running on all ground control areas - no one had told me, Oops.

I have had two very serious problems in my 2500hrs of PIC. I lost an engine in a Cessna-337 (actually I was practicing engine out and one prop accumulator had leaked so the prop would not un-feather). ATC asked if I was declaring an emergency, I said no, and they declared one for me anyway.

The second emergency was when a carb intake became obstructed by an air straightener on a Navion Bendix PS5 pressure carb. Right after taking off I lost about 50% power. I slowly circled back because of "..low fuel pressure.." , and I said I needed a "precautionary landing". Once again they declared an emergency anyway and I landed safely.

Most pilots don't know the definition of an emergency - In my early years I didn't

One of the possible problems with getting in trouble with the FAA is not knowing what an emergency really is. (They are quite lenient and understand this gap in knowledge. For example I have never seen a FAA definition.)

In about 1985 I discussed my experiences over coffee with a 10,000hr Atlas B747 captain that had been an instructor. He listened attentively, then calmly ask me if I knew when to declare an emergency? I said "if I thought I might die!" He calmly instructed me...

An emergency is when "safety of flight is in doubt",

OR when the aircraft is not able to perform as intended,

OR when the aircraft might not be able to perform as intended.

It's that simple!!

Also, a pilot is required to inform ATC (but not report a emergency) any time an aircraft is not able to climb at least 500fpm.

Note the emphasis on "might not be able to perform as intended". That may not sound like an emergency but that is how the FAA and ATC see it. And that is pretty low criteria - it gives the PIC lots of legitimate wiggle room.

Once I was told this, it made so much sense and I knew I could defend my actions as PIC in the future. It seems ATC likely has received better training than pilots on what an emergency is, even if the pilot is overly cautious to declare an emergency (as I use to be).

When the prop would not un-feather and I lost partial power, both aircraft would no longer perform "as intended" and I should have declared an emergency.

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    $\begingroup$ I wonder, based on your story, how much leeway ATC staff get. If they make a serious mistake that could have or did cause a crash, is that the end of their career? Can they face jail? $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 10:17
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know what it takes to get fired. My brother didn't necessarily endanger anyone but would cut corners instead of following established procedures. They demoted him to a desk job carrying flight strips to other controllers and changing paper in printers. The only controller I know that got fired was a old PATCO union employee that was part of the controller strike during Reagan's presidency. Reagan gave 1 or 2 days to return to work for national security reasons and fired any that didn't return to work. He was one of 11,000 that called their bluff and they fired him. $\endgroup$
    – jwzumwalt
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 10:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud, it depends very much on jurisdiction. The reasonable ones don't punish honest mistakes, no matter how bad they are, only negligence (knowingly not doing necessary tasks). However, sometimes there is criminal litigation, for example in the Gol flight 1907 case (if I read it right, there is still an appeal pending). Usually such litigation against the controllers and pilots (as opposed to managers who request cutting corners) are much condemned in the industry as they do no good. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 15:36

It's addressed on a case by case basis, and either of the consequences are possible - but the only highly likely one is spending more personal time on explanations and/or paperwork than you would save with a false emergency.

Rules are usually created for common occurrences. Simply admitting "there was nothing, I lied" instead of making up some vague concern (which would suffice to explain the declaration, once or twice) is too contrary to usual human behavior to warrant a rule.

From the regulatory side, the benefit of doubt is strongly in the pilot's favor. If a pilot imagines a gremlin on their wing, that's an emergency in itself! And what made them imagine it is in turn the issue that may or may not have consequences. Commercial pilots have it harder, as they report to their employer, who may be more inquisitive or have much less favorable views.

I've heard bits about false emergencies, but that's the extent of it. Hopefully someone else here has actual stories to liven this up.

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    $\begingroup$ Oh, I'm just saying I can't offer an actual story. But this site has a lot of people with an incredible amount of experience, so maybe someone will. $\endgroup$
    – Therac
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 18:30

And yet, the pilot thought it necessary to do that.

There is no aviation "den mother" or "big brother" who goes around looking for naughty boys and girls. Nor should there be: If a pilot has to worry about somebody "Monday morning quarterbacking" their emergency decision, that has a chilling effect on their decision-making in the air.

And that is simply not acceptable: the damage it would do to safety is far worse than the effects of a vanity emergency. Pressure from company or get-there-itis is already bad enough; look at Alaska Air 261.

In that flight, the stabilizer trim had jammed enough that a single drive motor was unable to turn it, resulting in ~10 lbs of stick force to maintain level. It was still flyable, and my druthers would be to declare an emergency and fix it on the ground. But they were afraid of the company second-guessing the emergency decision. So they pressed on, tried to fix it in the air by actuating both motors together; that broke it good-and-plenty. Finis.

So back to the hypothetical prankster: If he would go to the extreme of declaring a false-from-his-perspective emergency, then he must have had a reason for doing so. That reason isn't nothing. That reason matters. So I think if the prankster told ATC he'd faked it, he'd be more likely to be invited into a meta-discussion about what emergencies are, why a pilot should not be afraid to declare one, what actual effects it has on the ground (trucks rolled, planes sent around), and how that really isn't a problem and he should declare an emergency anytime he has one.

I think the view would be that even if the emergency were utterly bogus, the prankster is likely to get it out of his system pretty quickly and stop doing them. It takes all the fun out of pranking if the victim's response is don't worry about it.

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    $\begingroup$ "It takes all the fun out of pranking"... True. But I'd say it wouldn't usually be pranking; more likely arrogance, a way to get priority treatment. This would need a different approach. Yet... There was a story, perhaps even here, but I can't easily find it, when a pilot declared a (seemingly) bogus emergency on landing, and the controller sensed it and tried to argue. Things quickly degenerated almost to a real emergency. $\endgroup$
    – Zeus
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Zeus Link?.... $\endgroup$
    – Cloud
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ About the only bogus reporting I know about is a few situations were planes were in holding patterns and pilots exaggerated how low their fuel was in order to get priority and get to their gate sooner. $\endgroup$
    – jwzumwalt
    Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 10:54
  • $\begingroup$ "who goes around looking for naughty boys and girls." this is not entirely true. The FAA does go around inspecting aircraft and pilots its called a ramp check although not as common as a police office pulling a car over it does happen with some frequency. I have even been warned at local fields "the FAA is here today (usually for some other reason) watch out they may ramp check you" $\endgroup$
    – Dave
    Commented Jun 11, 2018 at 23:20

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