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FAAO JO 7110.65, §10-1-1 states that "pan-pan" can be used to indicate a state of urgency:

a. An emergency can be either a Distress or an Urgency condition as defined in the "Pilot/Controller Glossary."

b. A pilot who encounters a Distress condition should declare an emergency by beginning the initial communication with the word "Mayday," preferably repeated three times. For an Urgency condition, the word "Pan-Pan" should be used in the same manner.

Under what conditions might a pilot use the phrase "pan-pan", versus "Mayday"?

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    $\begingroup$ I've been taught that in the UK a common PAN is when you find out you accidentally ended up in controlled airspace and tell 121.5 that you recognised the issue and request for assistance in getting out of there asap. This for gliders. $\endgroup$ – Stefano Borini Apr 7 '16 at 22:49
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Oddly enough, the FARs and the AIM do not define these terms even though they use them frequently, but it is in the Pilot Controller Glossary (see below). This is one of those areas that I've never really been given specific training on and I guess figured that I would "know it when I saw it". The definitions kind of support that since they leave it to the discretion of the pilot:

EMERGENCY- A distress or an urgency condition.

DISTRESS (MAYDAY)- A condition of being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance.

URGENCY (PAN-PAN)- A condition of being concerned about safety and of requiring timely but not immediate assistance; a potential distress condition.

Flight Safety released a report titled Use of Standard Phraseology by Flight Crews and Air Traffic Controllers Clarifies Aircraft Emergencies which includes a quote from an official in which she says that there is a misconception among some pilots about the difference between declaring mayday and pan-pan:

I have observed many cases where a mayday is given when pan-pan should be sufficient. Many pilots do not realize that this distinction is ATC's way of prioritizing two or more aircraft with an emergency at the same time.

She also included some of the most important factors to consider when deciding to declare an emergency:

  • Is the aircraft in immediate danger?
  • Does the aircraft require immediate assistance?
  • Will the aircraft require priority handling during the approach or during any other phase of flight?
  • Will the aircraft need special assistance on the ground?
  • Does the crew need any assistance from other parties?

The most important thing though is not whether you declare exactly the right kind of emergency, but that you actually let them know when you need help. Don't forget that you can also change your mind. If you declared an Urgency condition and decide that you need more assistance/priority, you can always "upgrade" it to a Distress, and vice-versa.

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The rule of thumb I was given when learning to fly (not in the US) was that mayday means "this aircraft is in immediate danger and I need assistance", whereas pan-pan means "I have an urgent safety issue but the aircraft is not in immediate danger".

Put another way, mayday always means that your own aircraft is in distress, but pan-pan is appropriate for reporting other aircraft in distress, ships or other vessels in distress, passenger emergencies aboard your own aircraft (someone has a heart attack and you need a diversion immediately) and so on.

But I think this is a rather grey area. For example, a few months ago a passenger jumped from a light aircraft in Florida. According to the definition I was taught, the pilot should have made a pan-pan call because there was no immediate danger to the aircraft. In fact, he made a mayday call, which might still have been very appropriate because if the pilot was so shaken (understandably) that he needed vectors or other immediate assistance in order to land safely then the aircraft was indeed in danger, thus justifying a mayday call.

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    $\begingroup$ if a passenger of mine had a heart attack, I would declare a "medical emergency" if there was any chance of saving them and I needed priority or assistance on the ground. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Jan 11 '14 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Lnafziger The heart attack case was taught to me as a pan-pan scenario because the aircraft itself isn't in danger. But as you said these things aren't clearly defined and in the end it's all pilot's discretion anyway. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Jan 11 '14 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Pondlife; the heart-attack is definitely a mayday scenario, a mayday is an immediate threat to the aircraft and/or its inhabitants, where I'd say a heart attack qualifies. $\endgroup$ – falstro Jan 12 '14 at 13:21
  • $\begingroup$ The door being open on the light aircraft could pose a danger to the aircraft... something inside could blow out or the door itself might come loose and strike the tail, which can cause damage and loss of control. Plus, buffeting from the altered airflow could pose a control problem. So a mayday was appropriate. $\endgroup$ – tj1000 Apr 15 '18 at 18:03
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It might be worth remembering that both these terms have a nautical origin. On the sea, pan-pan-pan (from the french en panne, meaning broken down) usually meant that your engine was out and that you were drifting. You were not in immediate danger but obviously, you could soon be hitting rocks or drifting into the path of other vessels with no way to alter your heading. May-day (from the french m'aidez meaning help me) usually meant that you were sinking.

These don't translate to aircraft so well since planes can't generally drift along aimlessly for very long. So probably the category for pan-pan is rather narrow.

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Mayday should be used if you or any passengers on board are in danger and need immediate assistance.

Pan-Pan is used when a safety problem exists, which might not necessarily be related to your plane (eg if you see another aircraft/vehicle in danger or if you for example notice a fire on ground).

Pan-Pan therefore informs potential rescuers (including emergency services and other craft in the area) that a safety problem exists whereas "Mayday" will call upon them to drop all other activities and immediately initiate a rescue attempt.

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I know that in some parts of the world pan-pan-pan may be spoken after mayday-mayday-mayday to tell ATC and other pilots in the airspace that you have a problem, but want to solve it yourself (until further notice). ATC would then clear the immediate airspace to allow the aircraft in destress to maneuver however it needed to and work the problem without lots of other people and variables getting in the way. This actually happened on a Quantas a380 flight. After a stopover in Singapore, as it headed towards Australia, an engine basically exploded, which cut fuel lines, hydraulic lines, etc (basically, it was baddd). The pilots declared "pan-pan-pan" and eventually successfully landed back at Singapore.

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  • $\begingroup$ I believe you're referring to Qantas Flight 32. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Apr 16 '18 at 11:20

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