When to Call Mayday Versus Pan-Pan

by JeffKanarish

Warning: The following audio content may not be suitable for all listeners. It involves life and death radio transmissions that some listeners might find disturbing.

A Mayday radio call should be reserved for life threatening situations. These may include, but are not limited to:

  • Loss, or imminent loss of aircraft control for any number of different reasons

aircraft upset by turbulence;
pilot incapacitation;
spatial disorientation;
control surface or structural failure;
engine failure that will lead to a forced landing/ditching/ejection/bailout;

  • Or, an onboard fire.

Here are two recordings, released by the F.A.A., of Mayday radio transmissions, along with the response by air traffic services. The first is an exchange between the pilot of a twin-engined Cessna and Jacksonville Center. The second is the radio transmissions of a pilot in a single-engined Cessna and a flight service station specialist at Fort Dodge. (The two incidents are presented in one podcast. I separated the recording of each incident with two brief electronic tones.)

Pan-Pan-Pan

A Pan-Pan call should be used for urgent situations that are not immediately life threatening, but require assistance from someone on the ground. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Becoming lost;
  • A serious aircraft system failure, that requires an immediate route or altitude change;
  • Other emergencies that require immediate attention and assistance from the ground.

This is what the Aeronautical Information Manual has to say about using Mayday and Pan-Pan on the radio.

6-3-1

c. The initial communication, and if considered necessary, any subsequent transmissions by an aircraft in distress should begin with the signal MAYDAY, preferably repeated three times. The signal PAN-PAN should be used in the same manner for an urgency condition.

d. Distress communications have absolute priority over all other communications, and the word MAYDAY commands radio silence on the frequency in use. Urgency communications have priority over all other communications except distress, and the word PAN-PAN warns other stations not to interfere with urgency transmissions.

Bottom Line

If you feel your life is in jeopardy, call Mayday. If you need immediate assistance to deal with a serious situation that is not life threatening, call Pan-Pan.

Remember, in either case, it is up to you to fly your airplane to the best of your ability. No one on the ground can do that for you. They may have helpful advice, but it is only advice. You are still the pilot in command.

I’ll have both Mayday and Pan-Pan situations for you to try in the Aircraft Radio Simulator. For now, have you ever heard a distress call on the aircraft radio?

Update: 8 April 2014. There is a audio version of this discussion in my Radar Contact Show #39 “Timing is Everything in ATC Communication”. Here is the link to that show. The discussion of Mayday versus Pan begins at 13 minutes, 32 seconds in the show.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Carlton September 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Jeff,

Is there any information online to read about these incidents? The second pilot sounded frantic, but if he had remained calm and followed his training……

One of the biggest things I learned in the Infantry was to train, train and train some more. When the SHTF you resort to your training and procedures. Training should include book and real world scenarios. People should train as realistic as possible.

One of my last skydives I had a really bad streamer. The lines were so tangled that they criss-crossed the back of my neck and I could not look up.

Since this was a static line jump, the altitude was only 1400 ft up.

I was falling fast and could hear the chute flapping in the wind. My reserve was ready to be pulled, but what if that failed too?

My training took over and I started going through the procedures to hopefully open the streamer. About 9 seconds later(which felt like years) I was able to spin out of the tangle and the chute opened.

But……

If I had just freaked out and screamed, the outcome might have been worse. Train, train, train, train. When you are tired of training, train some more.

Reply

JeffKanarish September 30, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Carlton,

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find any more information about these other than the recordings. The NTSB website has nothing on them. If you turn up anything, let me know.

As far as training goes, no one does it better than the military, and that’s in part due to a huge training budget. Flying is expensive, and training is particularly expensive. I absolutely agree with what you are saying about the value of training.

I believe the pilot in the audio recording who panicked was a VFR-only pilot. He accidentally flew into the clouds and became disoriented. If he received the standard flight training for a private pilot license, he had, at most, a couple of hours of instrument training. He was likely unprepared/untrained for this situation and lost control.

Jeff

Reply

daniel schaeffer February 15, 2014 at 12:40 pm

Spatial disorientation happens immediately to someone who doesn’t know how to trust his instruments and gets lost in IFR conditions. This pilot sounds as if he’s never had a lesson in recovering from unusual attitudes. I’m sure he went and learned real quick after this.

Reply

JeffKanarish February 15, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Daniel,

I agree with both of your statements. Thank you for commenting.

Jeff

Reply

Lars April 23, 2014 at 2:09 am

So, I was curious about the incidents in your recordings and managed to track them down.

It seems the first one was N4467D a Cessna 421C, It crashed into the Gulf of mexico killing 5 souls. There isn’t much published on this flight by the NTSB, but what They have published (link below) indicated that the aircraft flew into a large thunderstorm and likely broke up in flight due to the strong updrafts.

NTSB Report
http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/brief.aspx?ev_id=20090709X74830&key=1

NTSB Report 2

http://www.ntsb.gov/aviationquery/brief2.aspx?ev_id=20090709X74830&ntsbno=ERA09FA389&akey=1

FAA Radio report matching your clip (incident at 26:40)
http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/2009-07-08/media/N4467D%20R88%201821-1903%20UTCZJX.mp3

Hope this helps, It certainly does show what a thunderstorm is capable of doing!

Lars

Reply

JeffKanarish April 23, 2014 at 11:02 am

Lars,

Thank you very much for the additional information. For this article, I did clip the FAA recording you listed in your comment. There is no additional information for the second incident, as far as I know, because the situation was resolved safely.

I’m amazed by how much interest this article draws. It draws more than 10% of the total daily visits to this website. I hope it leads people to explore ATCcommunication.com further because there is much more vital information spread around the website.

Jeff

Reply

Lars April 23, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Yes, I did manage to find that it was a rental plane. However, it’s still flying today. Though that situation was as close to fatal as you can get….

If the pilot had simply relaxed and focused on the instruments it wouldn’t have been a noteworthy moment at all…. We really should train panic out of our pilots. The only problem to do that is to truly put them into a real stressful situation.

I personally wish I had been taught spin recovery before I went for the cfi… Everyone should know how to cope with stress when flying.

Reply

Lars April 23, 2014 at 6:22 pm

As another note,
A good portion of the traffic this page draws would likely be people who are interested in the mayday call for curiosity, and not for learning (aka non pilots/atc). I have been digging through here to try and pick up more info personally..

Reply

JeffKanarish April 24, 2014 at 11:13 am

Lars,

Are you teaching spin recovery to your students?

Jeff

Reply

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