I've noticed listening to videos of emergencies that pilots simply say that their declaring an emergency vs saying Mayday. Am I wrong?


2 Answers 2


You're not wrong, but I don't know that it means they are being used less. Perhaps they were used more in the days of poor radio reception?

I have only declared an emergency twice, but neither time used any phraseology other than "declaring an emergency" as you have heard, and described the issue briefly in plain language. On clear VHF frequencies when you already have established two way communications there really isn't that all that much reason to say them. If you are already talking to a controller simply tell them what you need.

I think the real intent of the words is to get everyone else to shut up, but the only time I really needed to do that I instead squawked 7700 and just started doing what I needed to. (I was VMC with the field in sight on a downwind vector, had already declared minimum fuel after diverting, and was now emergency fuel. I had been told I was #2 behind a C-130 on a 10 mile straight in who I also had in sight, but there was a lot of chatter and I couldn't break in to express the urgency of my fuel situation. I turned to a visual base leg, and as soon as my squawk got their attention I was cleared to land immediately. I don't think the C-130 even had to go around...)

In any situation when you need to make sure you have ATC's full attention the words are certainly one of the best ways to do so, and I wouldn't hesitate to use them depending on the situation. (poor radio reception, other traffic trying to break in, etc.) It is still the proper phraseology for declaring an emergency.

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    $\begingroup$ I used PAN once, to raise an airliner flying overhead, on 121.5, after I was forced down on a remote lake in NE Ontario from engine failure. I was out of radio range of anybody, didn't want to have to set off the ELT, and I noticed a contrail overhead. The airliner actually responded and contacted my base for me with my location, and me and my two pax (fishermen who happened to be lawyers(!)) were rescued later the same day, by the air service owner, who brought gas cans thinking I was just low on fuel. When I told him I had a blown cylinder on the radio as he approached, he said "Ohh sh*t!!" $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Mar 11 at 3:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnK That's a super cool story. Thanks for sharing! $\endgroup$
    – Boeing787
    Mar 11 at 3:31
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    $\begingroup$ An American pilot speaking in plain English to an American controller using clear VHF works fine of course, but using standard phraseology is still recommended. Otherwise, not everyone on the frequency might understand what's going on. Chinese pilots are regularly confused by American controllers speaking plain English to them because they only learned standard phraseology. French controllers also love speaking French with French aircraft and nobody else knows what's going on... $\endgroup$
    – Bianfable
    Mar 11 at 9:20
  • $\begingroup$ As a marine VHF operator, I completely recognise "the real intent of the words is to get everyone else to shut up", particularly as we would normally use the calling channel (16) for such a broadcast message. Aviation comms is a bit different, particularly if you already have an established channel to ATC, and other traffic is much less likely to be able to stop and help you... $\endgroup$ Mar 12 at 9:36

The following is written from the perspective of a guy who hasn't even bothered getting my pilot's license. I've done quite a bit of research on the topic, but I'm hardly the most qualified expert to answer aviation-related questions.

The answer is getting rather long-winded for what started as a casual observation. But the gist of it is that I think we hear "declaring an emergency" from old pilots because it's what they were taught (in America, where much, if not most, aviation content on the internet comes from), and from new, casual pilots in minor emergencies because it sounds, in calm language, less formal (and potentially embarrassing) than "panpan".

Some Background

It should be noted that until a few years ago (2014, if memory serves), "declaring an emergency" was the official phrasing in the United States, while "mayday" or "panpan" were acceptable, but unofficial, alternatives.

The standard phrasing is now "mayday" and "panpan", in keeping with emergency phrasing the rest of the world uses. However, people tend to be creatures of habit, especially when approaching (or past) task saturation limits, so you're likely to continue hearing "declaring an emergency" for several more decades.

Right now, the majority of pilots got their licenses1 more than a decade ago, so the majority of pilots were likely taught the old phrasing. As more old pilots retire and more young pilots get training, the new (to us) phrasing will become more popular.

The U.S. accounts for nearly half of all air traffic in the world, and probably more than half of all English-speaking air traffic in the world. So there's a high chance that whatever flight you're watching, listening to, or reading about is from America, just based on numbers. If you're an English speaker, especially one from the U.S., the odds are especially high.

Alternate Hypothesis

However, I'm going to go with a frame challenge here. You seem to believe "mayday" and "panpan" are becoming less used, but I don't think this is actually true. I would argue the opposite, based on the above information.

I suspect what's really going on is that you watched a lot of movies growing up, where "MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY! FOX! SPITFIRE! IN THE HOLE! 72! EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE!" sounds far more dramatic than "A123XYZ declaring an emergency". Then you became interested in aviation and started looking up real aviation, where "declaring an emergency" has been the standard (at least in this part of the world) for decades.

Alternately, it's possible you're from a part of the world where "mayday" has always been the standard, then you got on YouTube, where much of the content is from America.

Either way, I'd suggest you challenge your belief that "mayday" and "panpan" used to be used a lot, because it's likely either not true, or it's because you're used to a different part of the world.

When Neither "Mayday" nor "Panpan" Make Sense

A "mayday" call is only used when the aircraft is in grave, immediate danger. "Panpan" is used when the aircraft isn't falling out of the sky, but either it's getting close, or there's a danger to someone on the aircraft (a passenger had a heart attack, for example). In either case, you're telling ATC that you need help, right now.

But there are plenty of cases that aren't really dangerous, but you'd really like some kind of priority assistance. You might use a "panpan" call, and I think it would be perfectly legal, but it's a bit extreme. Perhaps the navigation system died, but you're still perfectly good for visual flight in nice, cloud-free weather. You know it's probably not a big deal, but it just gets under your skin. If the nav system died, what other problems do you not know about?

So you calmly tell ATC that you've got some minor problems and you'd like to officially declare an emergency. You explain that you'd like to divert to the nearest airfield with onsite or nearby aircraft mechanics, that you're feeling a little stressed, and you wouldn't mind the biggest runway available just to make getting on the ground as smooth as possible.

Both "mayday" and "panpan" are excessively alarming for a minor situation that's mostly imaginary. But your elevated stress is quite real, and you'd quite really like a bit of a lifeline. It can also help just to have a supportive ear on the other end. So the less alarming phrasing can be used as an informally tertiary alarm call.

With the surge of YouTube channels dedicated to everyday flying, we're seeing more and more of these kinds of "emergency" calls for general aviation being recorded and broadcast, even though the situations themselves aren't really new or unusual.

With large, commercial aircraft, much of the above still holds. They have so many redundant systems it's very rare one falls out of the sky, so it's very unlikely a "mayday" call is warranted. With potentially hundreds of passengers on board, "panpan" calls are more likely to arise, though I can't think of a case I've actually heard that phrase used in a U.S. ATC call. But there are plenty of occasions where a critical enough system fails that the airline (or FAA) requires the airplane to make an emergency landing, but it's still not really a "panpan" situation so much as a formality to avoid getting to those far more dangerous situations.

I'm not sure what the current airlines are teaching, but it seems likely that many of the commercial situations "declare an emergency" precisely because of how safe the aircraft are.

Formal Definitions

The FAA defines an emergency condition as either a "distress" condition or an "urgency" condition. The "mayday" call is used for the former, and "panpan" for the latter. You can see the official procedures involving "mayday" and "panpan" calls in Chapter 6, Section 3 of the AIM.

The official definition of the radio calls can be found in the AIM's Glossary for MAYDAY

MAYDAY- The international radiotelephony distress signal. When repeated three times, it indicates imminent and grave danger and that immediate assistance is requested.

and for PAN-PAN.

PAN-PAN- The international radio-telephony urgency signal. When repeated three times, indicates uncertainty or alert followed by the nature of the urgency.

Chapter 6, Section 1, Paragraph 2 of the AIM says (emphasis mine):

An emergency can be either a distress or urgency condition as defined in the Pilot/Controller Glossary. Pilots do not hesitate to declare an emergency when they are faced with distress conditions such as fire, mechanical failure, or structural damage. However, some are reluctant to report an urgency condition when they encounter situations which may not be immediately perilous, but are potentially catastrophic. An aircraft is in at least an urgency condition the moment the pilot becomes doubtful about position, fuel endurance, weather, or any other condition that could adversely affect flight safety. This is the time to ask for help, not after the situation has developed into a distress condition.

Pilots who become apprehensive for their safety for any reason should request assistance immediately. Ready and willing help is available in the form of radio, radar, direction finding stations and other aircraft. Delay has caused accidents and cost lives. Safety is not a luxury! Take action!

Clearly, the FAA isn't worked up about inappropriate calls of "panpan". "The moment the pilot becomes doubtful" is a very low threshold to meet. And the definition of the call is simply "uncertainty or alert".

Still, it's a formal command that feels more forceful (at least to me) than a more casual, but still explicit "declaring an (unspecified level of) emergency". To me, and seemingly to many pilots, "panpan" feels better reserved for a situation where immediate assistance is needed, even if that's not the formal definition.

I'm in no way saying "panpan" shouldn't be used. Just that many pilots seem hesitant to use it, and I think the reason is that "declaring an emergency" in a casual tone feels like a less embarrassing way to say "I'm out of my depth" than the more formal calls.

I've also heard "I'MDECLARINGANEMERGENCY! I'MDECLARINGANEMERGENCY! I'MDECLARINGANEMERGENCY!" used a minute or two before a guy crash-landed on a freeway offramp. The tone and speed of the declaration made it very clear it was a distress call, and that "MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!" is both easier and faster to say. But it also illustrates the versatility of language via intonation, and how humans perceive the same statements differently depending on context.

1 Now called "certificates", though the FAA still uses the term "license" in a lot of their literature, last I checked.

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    $\begingroup$ Just stating that you are "declaring an emergency" and prefixing your call with "Mayday Mayday Mayday" have exactly the same meaning. Saying that you are "declaring an emergency" is more severe than "Pan-Pan," not less. If you have an urgent (or distress) situation, there is no need to be shy about declaring. No one is going to tell you your emergency wasn't emergent enough for a Mayday call. If you get more attention and priority handling than was strictly necessary, no one is going to die. Lots of people have died because of being too hesitant to declare when they should have. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Mar 12 at 8:58
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab: At this point, an "emergency" is either a distress (mayday) condition OR an urgency (panpan) condition. Declaring "an emergency" could be either condition. You can see the FAA definitions in play here, as well as other sections of chapter 6. I agree (and the FAA stresses) that calling "panpan" for something that turns out to be nothing is legal, but pilots still get stressed over it. Legally, "declaring an emergency" has the same impact as "panpan" or "mayday", but I think the apparent stress level is $\endgroup$
    – user68153
    Mar 13 at 3:11
  • $\begingroup$ ...higher when you call "panpan" (a formal emergency call) than stating something like "I'm going to go ahead and declare an emergency". Of course, you could also state "I'm going to go ahead and declare panpan". But that (to me) sounds weird, and the point of the "mayday" and "panpan" calls is specifically so the individual words gets other radio traffic to stop. Why use the forceful term when you've already got the air? $\endgroup$
    – user68153
    Mar 13 at 3:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone: As far as I can tell, "sécurité" is used in maritime emergency calls (see here for example), but not aviation in America. The word is too common in French for me to easily find examples of it being used in foreign aviation, if at all. $\endgroup$
    – user68153
    Mar 13 at 4:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone "sécurité" isn't used in aviation (at least not in any internationally-standard manner... of course, French speakers would use it as normal French when communicating with each other in French, but not with the standard meaning it has in maritime radiotelephony.) The word does not appear at all in the ICAO Manual of Radiotelephony or the FAA Pilot/Controller Glossary, for example. Which is probably for the best, as it would be confusing with the English word 'security,' which is used in the P/CG and does not mean the same thing. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Mar 13 at 16:07

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