When to Call Mayday Versus Pan-Pan

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.

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30 thoughts on “When to Call Mayday Versus Pan-Pan”

  1. 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.

    1. 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

      1. 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.

      2. A quick YouTube search pulled up some additional information on the second incident. The first part is the original mayday call, the second part is of him sheepishly making a re-file the same day, thanking ATC to be alive!

        http://youtu.be/IMYGHGNZ47I

        Looks like he’s OK folks!

        1. Hey Saad,

          Thank you for that follow up.

          Just a technical note that doesn’t really change anything at all about this incident. The pilot was coached out of his disorientation by an agent at the Fort Dodge Flight Service Station.

          An FSS agent is not part of ATC. While Flight Service may provide traffic information at uncontrolled airports, the agents at FSS do not control air traffic.

          I can see where this confusion may arise, especially since the YouTube video you pointed out included a photo of an airport tower. This may lead some to believe the pilot in the video was in contact with an air traffic control tower during his predicament. He was not. Again, this does not take anything away from the fantastic job done by the FSS agent in helping save this pilot. I just wanted to to clarify a minor technical point.

          Cheers,

          Jeff

      3. Richard J Owens

        You fail, importantly, to say what the proper protocol is !!!!
        It is… “Mayday… Mayday… Mayday” !
        and
        “Pan-Pan…Pan-Pan…Pan-Pan” !
        and
        Sacurite’…Securite’…Securite'” !
        I fundamentally important fact.

        1. Richard,

          Here it is, in the last section of the article subtitled, 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.” We do not use Securite’ in the U.S.

          Cheers,

          Jeff

  2. 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

    1. 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

      1. 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.

        1. 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..

    2. I have often wondered about a call I made in reality 10 years ago, at the time I was operating a tour boat with 60 teenage students and staff on board I came across a drowned man in the river, you know I can’t remember if I called pan pan or securite, though with hindsight I suspect mayday was the correct call having said that I can tell you it got total radio attention.

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  4. Charlotte McDaniel

    I earned a pilots license at age 16 flying a piper cub. World war 2came along, I joined civil air patrol, flew the piper cub in skies of northern minn and Wisconsin to keep both states free of German and Japanese attacks. I don’t know what we would have done had either Japanese or Germans found our states. Hurled chunks of that good Wisconsin cheese at them? I later joined Air Force, wanted to fly for AirForce. However, females were not allowed to undertake pilot training. Said we were too vicious, would not be fair to the enemy. I also had a course in communications, ground control.

    1. Charlotte,

      I love your sense of humor, though I’m sure it was disappointing at the time to not have the same opportunities as men in the Air Force. Thankfully, the barriers you encountered have since been removed.

      I’ve always greatly admired the women of the WASP program who tested and shuttled combat aircraft during WWII. Several years ago, they received much overdo recognition when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Thank you for writing!

      Jeff

      1. Charlotte mcdaniel

        I attempted to become a WASP, however, they already had too many applicants from young girls like me who had idolized Amelia Earheart. Everything interesting was closed to us because we lacked a set of testicles.

  5. Being a female hinders most ladies who aspire to become a pilot.This however is just the matter of human mentality a lady can do what a man can do!!

  6. I came to this website because Armageddon is playing on TV. They call mayday when they try land on the asteroid, as if someone in Houston could fix their situation. Reminded me of learning about Pan Pan in scouts, and googled my way here for a refresher.

    Moral of the story… Armageddon is a terrible movie!

    1. Had never heard of Pan Pan before; it sounds French. Am watching Quantas FS2004/FSX on You Tube and saw it there. Have flown commercial on and off for over 60 years.
      Including one Cessna flight from S. WA state to Las Vegas NV. I was in right chair, had the yoke. Almost couldn’t help flying higher as we overflew those Very Large Very Solid-Looking Rocky Mountains.
      Much less flying recently, since funds are restricted.
      Was disappointed in other videos to see that pilots apparently now just turn a knob to the new flight heading, probably for other tasks too. It’s a good thing that human pilots are still trained on how to deal with situations that are beyond the programming of machines.

  7. 1967 My first CFI was ex WW2 spitfire insisted I learn spins.
    1968. Second CFI was active flying Mirages. Insisted I learned spins under the hood.
    1981 flying right seat in Cherokee Arrow. My friend flew into IMC and ten minutes later we were in tight descending spiral. Thank God for all my spin training!

    1. Russ,

      Spins under the hood? That sounds like a ticket for nausea.

      Glad you survived it, and survived it again. Good story.

      Jeff

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  11. Hello to everyone.a single engine failure in a multi engine helicopter supposed to be imminent danger for life and supposed to call for mayday mayday mayday or pan pan pan?where is this documented?thank you in advance

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