After a downhill bike ride gone wrong last night. Around midnight I was climbing up a mountain (to my Jeep) with my bike on my back.

While I was climbing I was thinking about the fact my headlight had an SOS function (I didn't consider using it). SOS functions of lights are great and all, but then I realized that as a pilot, myself, I am not sure how to report a person in distress on the surface.

As a climber and ROTC cadet, I am well versed in the hand signals, and various ways to flag down airplanes, but as a pilot, if I were to come across someone flashing SOS at night, or flagging me down with a mirror in the day, how would I report their location to get a search and rescue team dispatched?


2 Answers 2


I would treat an active SOS signal from the ground the same way I would treat an ELT signal on 121.5: Contact ATC (or Flight Service if you're not sure what ATC frequency to use) and inform them of the event.

As with reporting an ELT you should be prepared to tell ATC:

  • What kind of signal you've observed
    (ELT, signal light, signal mirror, "SOS" or "HELP" spelled out with rocks…)
  • The time you observed the signal
    (Ideally you'll report it while overhead & actively monitoring it)
  • Your location and altitude

Ideally you'll be able to give your location as a GPS fix as SHAF described.
If that's not possible there are other options, in roughly-descending order of accuracy:

  • A DME fix (radial & DME distance)
  • A VOR fix (the intersection of two radials from separate stations)
  • A VOR radial & visual landmark (ideally something on the sectional chart)
    While just a radial is not very useful it can be helpful in conjunction with a landmark: "South side of Mt. Greylock, on the 350 radial off Chester VOR" helps narrow down the search area considerably.
  • A visual landmark based on the sectional chart.

ATC may also ask you to circle the distress signal and ident in order to get a radar fix to supplement any of the above.

  • 5
    $\begingroup$ It should go without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that a VOR fix is only useful if the radials are not collinear, so use some common sense: Saying "At the intersection of the 082 radial on Chester VOR and the 263 radial on Gardener VOR" isn't useful: those radials define V39 - they're the same line & every point along the way is "at the intersection". By contrast "At the intersection of the 082 radial on Chester VOR and the 194 radial on Keene VOR" is much more useful. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Nov 16, 2014 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ @rbp I've moved the discussion of the various means of determining location to a chat room as they're beyond the scope of comments. If you'd like we can continue discussing them there. $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Nov 17, 2014 at 20:48

FWIW, I was specifically taught to use "pan-pan" for a scenario like that, at least to get the controllers' attention; anything more depends on the specific situation. My instructor said that pan-pan is always a good way to relay distress calls or other urgent conditions that don't affect your aircraft directly.

I've never seen any formal document to support that, but emergencies are thankfully rare and formalities are secondary to getting help to whoever needs it.

  • 6
    $\begingroup$ If you know that life is in danger outside your aircraft, a Mayday is appropriate. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Nov 16, 2014 at 9:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Only heard one. Was a mate of mine got a sudden bang and vibration on a Jet Ranger. He put it into autorotation and fired out a mayday. Turned out it was just a piece of blade tape exploding. All involved said better safe than sorry and he did have a police helicopter overhead about 5 minutes after touching down. $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Nov 16, 2014 at 20:20
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Simon: I, too, was specifically taught (and just verified that from a textbook) that pan-pan is the proper call for reporting distress of other vehicles (no matter whether air, sea, land; including relaying mayday calls) or persons on the ground or aboard. Mayday is only for calling out an emergency of your own. $\endgroup$ Nov 16, 2014 at 21:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This (military air) also this which are the references on en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayday both say to pronounce it as "MAYDAY RELAY" (which fwiw is not what it says on the Wikipedia page). $\endgroup$
    – ChrisW
    Nov 17, 2014 at 1:10
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @ChrisW My understanding of "MAYDAY RELAY" is that you use it when you're receiving a mayday signal but the agency that would respond to it isn't - that may or may not be appropriate based on the kind of surface distress signal you're getting. "pan-pan" seems generally appropriate for all cases though: You have urgent information to communicate which needs some level of priority, but are not yourself in distress. Either way the important bit is letting someone know and how you go about doing it is largely secondary :) $\endgroup$
    – voretaq7
    Nov 17, 2014 at 17:36

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