Consequences of Declaring an Emergency with ATC

My airplane has a problem. A big problem. I think I can handle it. No, I’m sure I can handle it. Maybe I can handle it. Can I handle it? I’m not sure.I had better declare an emergency with ATC and get some help.

But what if this turns out to be nothing? What if I declare an emergency and it isn’t really an emergency? What will the FAA say? I’m sure they will want to investigate and that will not turn out well. I’ll just handle this on my own and see what happens.

In today’s Radar contact show, we are going to talk about the consequences of declaring an emergency with ATC. You are going hear from the FAA’s Safety Team and from air traffic controllers on this topic. We are going to find out if declaring an emergency will put your pilot’s license in jeopardy.

Have you ever been confused by taxi instructions or forgotten your taxi instructions? I have, and so have thousands of other pilots. In this show, we’ll talk about some things you can do right now to make copying taxi instructions a whole lot easier. Ready to taxi? Let’s go!

Special Note from Me to You

If you have ever had to declare an emergency with ATC, I would love to hear from you. Or, if you have ever not declared an emergency, and wish you had, I would love to hear from you. Either way, please write to me at jeff@ATCcommunication. There may be an opportunity to teach other pilots a bit more about emergencies based on your experience. I solemnly promise I will keep any information confidential, including your identity, you tell me to keep confidential. Send me an email any time. I’m right here.

Show Notes:

  1. In our last Radar Contact Show I asked you to take a 2-question survey about whether or not you would hesitate to declare an emergency when the situation required it.
  2. To date 291 people have taken that survey. 21.43% of those who answered said they would hesitate to declare an emergency.
  3. When asked why in the survey, respondents who said they would hesitate answered one of 2 ways. 1) They would hesitate to declare an emergency if they were not confident they had an actual emergency situation. 2) Fear of an FAA investigation following the emergency declaration.
  4. I submitted the data from the survey to the head of the FAA’s Safety Team.
  5. The response from the FAA was this: The FAA is obligated to investigate violations of the FAR’s no matter how it learns of violations. If a pilot does something intentionally criminal or intentionally violates the FAR’s, whether or not that action results in an emergency, the FAA is going to take a look at it.
  6. However, the FAA does not investigate pilots who declare an emergency simply because an emergency was declared. The notion that you will draw unwanted focus on your flying skills or training simply because you declare an emergency is utter nonsense.
  7. If your emergency develops into an aircraft accident in which your aircraft is damaged or destroyed or people are injured, the FAA will want to take a look at that. They are not there to hammer you. They want to examine the accident itself to see if something can be done to prevent a similar problem in the future.
  8. The AIM Chapter 6-1-2 says most pilot have no problem declaring an emergency when the situation is obviously dangerous, as is the case for fire, aircraft damage, etc. Some pilots will hesitate to declare an emergency if the situation doesn’t seem immediately threatening.
  9. If you are ever concerned for the safety of your flight, that is an urgent condition. The AIM says you should not hesitate to ask for help immediately.
  10. Even if what you thought was an emergency turns out to not be an emergency, you are perfectly legal and welcome to cancel your emergency status with ATC. There is no negative consequence for canceling an emergency once the situation that prompted an emergency no longer exists.
  11. Recall this whole discussion began with a pilot who’s airplane, I believe, lost cabin pressurization at 31,000. He did not declare an emergency but requested to descend to a lower altitude.
  12. ATC was not able to let the aircraft to descend to as low an altitude as the pilot needed. The pilot subsequently lost consciousness, allegedly from hypoxia, and died.
  13. It is my opinion, if the pilot had immediately declared an emergency when he first learned of his problem, ATC would have made his flight a top priority and cleared hm to descend to as low an altitude as he needed. He might have lived to fly another day.
  14. Did you know an air traffic controller can declare an emergency for your flight, even if you don’t? It’s true. An air traffic controller can put your flight under emergency status if he feels it is necessary to give your aircraft priority handling.
  15. Air traffic controllers are ready and willing to help you if you ever find yourself in trouble while flying.
  16. Controllers truly value their role as lifeguards for pilots and passengers. They even give out an annual award to the air traffic controller who performs the best save of a flight in trouble.
  17. If you are ever concerned for the safety of your flight, don’t sit there and second-guess the situation. Declare an emergency immediately and get all of the help you need to safely resolve your situation. There are no negative consequences for declaring an emergency. The FAA will not investigate simply because you declared an emergency.
  18. If you are still worried about declaring an emergency when needed, know there are options to help defend your actions.
  19. If you file an report detailing your actions via NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) within 10 days of the incident, the report will provide immunity against potential enforcement action by the FAA. There other conditions in the FAA’s immunity policy which you may read about at the ASRS website.
  20. Here is a link to the ASRS website. You may find the FAA’s enforcement policy regarding ASRS reports under the menu tab “Program Information” and the menu item titled “Immunity Policy.”
  21. Also realize, though I don’t think you will ever need one for simply declaring an emergency, there are lawyers who specialize in aviation law.
  22. If you have ever misunderstood or failed to remember your taxi instructions, join the club of thousands of other experienced pilots who have the same problem.
  23. If you don’t understand or didn’t fully copy your taxi instructions the first time ground control gives them to you, ask for a repeat.
  24. Instead of trying to remember your taxi instructions, write them on paper. Only write when your aircraft is not moving. Never attempt to look down and write while you are taxiing.
  25. Write as little as possible. Your goal is to write just enough to interpret your own notes.
  26. Examples: Ground Control says, “Runway 33, taxi via right Alpha, then join Bravo with a left on Alpha 1 and hold short of Runway 26 on Bravo,” I would write,  33 r A -B l A1 B/26. This would read as Runway 33. Right Alpha. Join Bravo with a Left Alpha 1. Hold short of Runway 26 on Bravo. For “Runway 7, taxi via Charlie and cross Runway 19, I would write 7 C x19.
  27. I have more examples and practice exercises for you in my workbook, Radio Mastery for VFR Pilots Workbook, available at
  28. Listen to the taxi instructions given to other pilots before you call for taxi. You will probably get similar instructions.
  29. Get familiar with the airport’s layout by studying the taxi chart before you call for taxi. Trace the most logical route or routes from your parking position to the active runway.
  30. Verbalize, either out loud or in your head, the steps in the route from parking to the runway as you trace the route with your finger. This exercise should mentally prep you for what the ground controller is about to say to you on the radio.

Your Question of the Week:

You are approaching the runway at Savannah, Georgia. The tower controller says to you, “Runway 10, cleared to land. Your landing will be over a raised cable on the runway, 1,476 feet from the approach end.” Here are your questions: First, why is there a raised cable positioned on the runway? Second, based on this information, where should you plan to touch down on the runway? When you think you know the answers to those questions, go to


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8 thoughts on “Consequences of Declaring an Emergency with ATC”

  1. This is by far one of the best and more productive aviation articles I ever seen in my life. Thank you Jeff for such a fine work.

  2. Pingback: Use ATC to Save Your Life

  3. Pingback: A Blog Post About Blog Posts | Tales from the Terminal

  4. Jeff,
    just found your blog via Jennifer’s “Tales from the Terminal” blog–great stuff!

    I used to tell my students, “If you get a hangnail, declare an emergency!”

    In the past 25 years of airline flying, I’ve only had to declare an emergency once or twice, but never hesitated. Much more common is the “Medical Emergency,” which I have to do on behalf of a sick passenger once or twice a year. You still get priority handling, fill out the paperwork..but that’s it.

    Your tax dollars at work!

    Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier

    1. Cap’n Aux,

      I’m so glad you commented on this. Your prospective as a professional pilot adds a lot of weight to the message: Don’t hesitate to declare an emergency.

      As an aside, I really enjoy your website, To anyone who reads this comment thread, do check out



  5. Pingback: What ATC’s ‘Make Closed Traffic’ Clearance Means

  6. Pingback: Discover The Lost Art Of Pan Pan | Clayviation

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