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If a pilot declares an emergency and then in the process of working with ATC is able to resolve the issue, would they then be able to resume normal navigation (as a non-emergency aircraft) and continue to their destination?

Scope:

  • USA(FAA) General Aviation regulations. Answers for other jusristictions should be made in a similar question specific to that area, I will not be awarding one of those as the answer.
  • During Flight.
  • I am not asking if it is advisable, only if it can legally be done.
  • I am not interested in a discussion on specific scenarios or of emergency procedures during the emergency state.
  • I have looked at CFR 49,B,7,830.5 for what conditions you are required to notify the NTSB and stipulate that NTSB notification is not required. I strongly suggest you read the full 830 section if you are unsure about its content before posting.

I am interested in the question since there seems to be a tendency in the US General Aviation community to not declare an emergency even though the situation merits such a declaration, based on the volume of ATC recordings and accident investigations where the pilot needs to be coached by ATC into realizing they are in an emergency situation, and possibly declaring it verbally.

As I understand it, when declaring an emergency you may violate 91.3; e.g. any regulations. You only need to report it to the FAA if they ask you, Part 91.3(c) and if it doesn't meet the reporting requirements covered in 830.5 you don't even need to report it to the NTSB.

On the NTSB reporting, my take is, it seems to focus on equipment failure or crew/passenger illness, either of which may not have been within the control/awareness of the PIC prior to the incident. This necessitates the need for tracking and isolating incidents of equipment failure so that manufacturers can improve their equipment or to suggest procedural changes to prevent re-occurrence.

I am wondering if there is a part of the laws that I missed on actions or reporting, or any punitive actions from the FAA for declaring a legitimate emergency condition. My impression is the FAA wants to be more like the DMV for aircraft rather than the Police for aircraft. I think it would benefit the general public to understand that distinction as well.

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    $\begingroup$ I know you specify USA, so I won't post as an answer - but here in the UK, when I did my radio telephony test one of the parts of the mock-flight was a MayDay and then subsequent cancellation of that MayDay, and the resumption of the flight. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Mar 17 at 11:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Dan Did you tell people in advance that this was a practice mayday? $\endgroup$ Mar 17 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth the UK radio telephony test is carried out with a computer program, not using the actual radio! Something like this $\endgroup$
    – gilbertbw
    Mar 18 at 11:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Dan that is fine. I mainly wanted to keep the question and answers focused and not have some answers one way and others the other way which would lead to confusion. $\endgroup$ Mar 18 at 21:07

3 Answers 3

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You haven't missed anything. There's no regulation saying that if you declare an emergency that you must land, if a situation resolves itself or the actions taken mean that a flight is no longer in danger then a pilot can continue the flight as they see fit. One example would be depressurization; once the airplane descends to a safe altitude a pilot may determine that there's enough fuel to continue to the destination and opt for that. Another example would be a sick passenger that turns out to be fine, there's no reason to land because of that.

One of the reasons there's so little paperwork involved is to invite use of the system. If a pilots know there's a mountain of paperwork or costs involved with declaring an emergency, or that they will be put under scrutiny for their decision-making they are more likely to try and deal with a situation themselves, possibly leading to an avoidable accident. Regulators do not want to discourage pilots from asking for help.

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    $\begingroup$ As a side note: a passenger getting sick is usually a PAN PAN Medical -situation (urgency), either of the pilots being incapacitated is a an emergency (MAYDAY). Passenger medical situations that justify emergency status are not (IIRC) often survivable. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Mar 18 at 11:40
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with you @Jpe61, I've personally witnessed as a passenger a case where the crew thought that another passenger was having a heart attack (so did the passenger). Everyone was convinced this person was going to die, the airplane started an emergency descent, then the guy did a couple of enormous belches and realized it was just his digestion! Soon after we leveled out and climbed back up to cruising altitude. $\endgroup$
    – GdD
    Mar 18 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Jpe61 I have rarely ever heard PAN called on the live radio. Recordings are another thing. Its either Mayday or emergency. $\endgroup$ Mar 18 at 21:02
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I was surprised that I couldn't find any specific provisions for this either in the AIM or the 7110.65 (ATC bible). But anecdotally I believe the answer is "yes," and it has happened at least once - to me - without repercussion.

It was a classic VFR-into-IMC. The weather conditions and forecast were overcast, but above minimums, with patchy rain cells, but good visibility outside the rain. I assumed with the visibility I'd be able to spot any rain or low clouds and steer clear. I was wrong, and unexpectedly entered hard IMC shortly after takeoff from an uncontrolled field.

Luckily I was instrument rated, current and proficient, in a very well-equipped aircraft, and over familiar and benign terrain. Still, I called the approach facility that handles that airport and declared an emergency. But after they radar identified me and got me on an IFR clearance, the emergency condition no longer existed and so I canceled the emergency. I landed at my intended destination airport uneventfully, counted my blessings, filed my ASRS report, and that was that. I learned a lesson, and there was no follow-up from ATC or the FAA.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure the ATC and FAA would rather it be an uneventful emergency and would have no good reason to make it more troublesome than it actually is. $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Mar 18 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer, I do have two questions. 1) Yes what? I was very careful to ask in such a way that an answer should be only correct or incorrect. The problem with yes and no in this context is both apply. 2) Where is the mandate that an ASRS be filed and under what condition? as a non-aviation person this is the first I have heard of this document. I see that those reports are not passed to the FAA by looking at their website. $\endgroup$ Mar 18 at 21:00
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    $\begingroup$ @RowanHawkins "Yes" is the answer to your title question, "After ..., can a pilot legally resume normal navigation ...?" // The ASRS report is never mandatory. It's a voluntary, anonymous safety program. Had the FAA decided to pursue enforcement action against me for a deviation, my act of writing an ASRS report would have worked in my favor to mitigate or avoid punishment. It also helped me organize my thoughts about the incident and learn from my actions (what I did right and what I did wrong). It's something any conscientious pilot should really do in such a case, but not a requirement. $\endgroup$
    – TypeIA
    Mar 18 at 22:09
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I can speak as an Air Traffic Controller working for the Brazilian government. This answer is based on what ICAO`s documents say and their adjustments for Brazilian reality as proposed in ICAO. The short answer is yes! Now I explain why and what.

I work at an international airport (mainly cargo aircraft) and one single company uses here. We have a good volume of traffic for Brazilian standards (top 10 highest traffic airports in Brazil) and after several situations where a pilot declared "Pan Pan" or "May Day" we had all procedures done, call firefighters, runway reservation and stuff, but at the end there was no more emergency situation as the aircraft crew could solve the problem and could continue their flight, but we had to maintain emergency status because of a lack of rules about that.

After numerous situations like that our manager and flight company had several meetings with the National Civil Aviation Agency of Brazil (equivalent to the FAA in the US) to determine when an emergency can be cancelled. At the end all points were considered and a new standard defined.

The official rule is: The pilot in command of the aircraft, in the same way he declares an emergency, also he can declare an emergency ending. That is working very well here.

Just to finish, I can give an example. An ATR-72 in approach, about 50NM out entered a cumulonimbus cloud and declared "May Day" (that was serious stuff). At our airport we got that information and did all the procedures. After about 5 minutes the pilot said he left the CB and everything was fine. At that point you can clearly see both aspects of this situation. Under the old rules, he would have landed in "May Day" consuming a huge amount of resources, which were not needed. With the new procedure he cancelled that "May Day" and resumed normal operations.

I hope this foreign vision of an ATCO can illustrate some of this.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer, I do have a question, yes what? I was very careful to ask in such a way that an answer should be only correct or incorrect. I couldn't tell from your answer if it was correct that there was no issue. The problem with yes and no in this context is both apply. $\endgroup$ Mar 18 at 20:52
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for that, I can be very precise about that. Since that consulting federal regulators, YES YOU CAN! There are several changes and rules that are only valid AFTER some kind of regulator say it is, you know how complex are compliance, so keep short I can say you that Yes you can cancel an emergency as pilot in command the same way you declares an emergency. $\endgroup$ Mar 22 at 18:35

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