Let's say I am cruising at a very high altitude with my Cessna, like at 5000ft+ AGL, and I got an engine failure.

After going through the checklist, my engine is still not working, but I realized that I could easily land the airplane on an airport near me with my gliding speed.

Can I just talk to the airport, whether controlled or uncontrolled and take whatever runway is best for landing, instead of declaring an emergency on 121.5 and squawk 7700?

Thanks.

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    Re "very high altitude with my Cessna, like at 5500 MSL": Did you mean AGL (Above Ground Level)? In much of the western US, 5500 ft MSL is pattern altitude, if not field elevation, or underground :-) – jamesqf Sep 21 at 18:21
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    On the flip side of your question, if you are having trouble getting authorization to land in the way you need, I have heard that the act of declaring an emergency can release administrative red-tape and make it easier for ATC to authorize what needs to happen to get you on the ground safely. – Cort Ammon Sep 21 at 19:10
  • @CortAmmon If you're in an emergency, you (the pilot) can do pretty much what you want to deal with the emergency in a safe and expedient manner, as long as you can reasonably justify the action you took. ATC basically cannot tell you "no" at that point, but you'll likely need to explain yourself once on the ground. US 14 CFR §91.3(b); EASA SERA 2010(a), 2015. – a CVn Sep 22 at 19:22
up vote 23 down vote accepted

I'm basically going to echo what's already been said, but with a twist.

Yes, of course you can keep talking to the people you're already talking to, on the frequency you're already on. If you're actually talking to someone already, that's probably your best bet, not least because they know you're there.

In fact, especially if you're in controlled airspace, one might argue that speaking up on the radio immediately upon engine failure isn't a horrible idea, if and only if you are able to do so safely. Even a simple "Springfield tower, Cessna '345, pan-pan-pan, engine failure, attempting restart", maybe even while you're pulling out the in-flight engine failure checklist, will give ATC a heads-up that, at the very least, you won't be able to maintain altitude. That would allow them to take your situation into account when vectoring other traffic. If all they see is a VFR GA plane starting to descend, for all they know that's perfectly intentional maneuvering on your part.

Only if you can't reach anyone (who is able to help) on the frequency you're currently on does it make sense to consider fiddling with the radio to switch to 121.5. Fiddling with the radio to change frequency should be well down your mental list of actions to take.

The same reasoning applies to the transponder; you certainly can change to 7700 if you want to and you feel that it is appropriate, but you don't have to. Squawking 7700 will cause your radar return to light up like the proverbial christmas tree at ATC, but saying mayday or possibly declaring emergency is also a pretty good way to get peoples' attention in a hurry.

Once you realize that the engine isn't going to cooperate in restarting, and especially if you realize that you'll be able to make a controlled (but forced) landing on the nearby airport, I'd pretty much just treat it as an ordinary landing, with the caveat of declaring at least pan-pan-pan, possibly mayday, and telling ATC that you have no engine power. Let them deal with the other traffic and just focus on executing a safe landing and vacating the runway as quickly as you are able, but no quicker.

If you realize that the engine isn't going to cooperate, and that you can't make it to the nearest airport, well, that's when a forced outfield landing likely becomes a tempting option. Telling ATC (possibly on 121.5, with the above caveat on whether you're already talking to someone) what your position and intentions are will still allow them to get help out your way in case you do botch the landing. If you do make it down safely, be sure to tell them, relaying via another aircraft if necessary.

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate is a good rule of thumb, but it's a rule of thumb, not dogma. If you're able to communicate while still aviating and navigating, then doing so might help ease at least the burden of navigation.

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    Minor nitpick regarding the last sentence, that's exactly the point of "Aviate - Navigate - Communicate": do all of them if you can, but prioritize them as such. Task shedding (i.e., do the ones on the left even if it means you can no longer do the ones on the right) isn't a deviation from the "rule of thumb," it's the whole point. Otherwise +1! – TypeIA Sep 21 at 17:57
  • @TypeIA Very possibly true, but in practice, I've seen a lot of cases where people don't treat it as such, but rather seem to more in terms of "don't communicate, just aviate and navigate", even when communicating could ease especially the burden of navigation. (As I'm sure you know, ATC can help with traffic advisories, vectoring, keeping an eye on your position, and lots of other stuff that will allow the individual pilot/s to spend more of their focus on the aviating. Heck, just asking for a straight-in approach vector and distance to the nearest airfield can nearly eliminate navigation.) – a CVn Sep 22 at 11:30

Yes, absolutely. In fact, the preferred and normal option is to talk to whoever it is you've been talking to previously. Whether that be a local tower or a regional RADAR operator.

121.5 is a frequency of last resort, and acts as an emergency fallback and catch-all.

Ultimately, you're in charge of your emergency and you make the decisions. Do you have time to mess with the radio - remember where "communicate" comes in the Holy Trinity.

That said, you should consider the advantages of talking to different people - what is making a May Day on an uncontrolled, potentially unmonitored frequency going to achieve? IF somebody is listening they MAY be able to relay a message for you but they're unlikely to be prepared to ready emergency services or search and rescue. Talking to a proper Air Traffic Service Unit is by far preferred, but it certainly doesn't need to be on 121.5.

In an emergency, such as an engine failure, the answer to "can I do X" is almost always a resounding "YES".

You can do anything within your power to protect the safety of those on board. That is your job as pilot in command. If you think it is safer to ask a controller to manoeuvre big jets out your way so you can touch down on an otherwise busy Airport, then you do it. If you see a farmer's strip that you can land on, you do it. You do whatever is necessary to safely bring that aircraft down.

Aviate. Then navigate. Then communicate.

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    "ask a controller to manoeuvre big jets out your way" - to clarify, he wouldn't need to ask that specifically. If someone has an emergency, we are going to move other traffic out of their way by default, no questions asked. – J. Hougaard Sep 22 at 12:51

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