To: (Separate email addresses with commas)
From: (Your email address)
Message: (Optional)



What Happens When You Declare An Emergency With ATC?


Have you ever wondered what happens backstage when you declare an emergency with ATC? We spoke to one of the nation's largest ATC facilities to find out more...

Hesitation To Declare Emergencies Is A Real Problem

Have you ever had a significant problem in the air and wondered if you should declare an emergency? It happens more often than you'd think. Many pilots delay declaring an emergency until the most serious of situations because there's a perception of heightened pressure or paperwork awaiting you on the ground.

The following NASA ASRS Report details the experience of one pilot who experienced an engine failure while flying a Cessna Citation Jet...

I departed on an IFR flight. Climbing through 16,000 ft MSL, I noticed a low oil pressure annunciator turn on for the left engine. The oil pressure tape started dropping. I immediately started a 180 turn back; notified ATC, but did not declare an emergency. ATC gave me vectors after I already turned back. As I joined the vector, I flew within 4.9 miles of another aircraft who was #1 for landing, I was #2. If I would have declared an emergency, ATC would have cleared me #1 for landing. I secured the left engine and proceeded with a single engine approach and landing. The loss of oil pressure resulted from a dipstick that popped out during flight.

Being single-pilot, there was a lot to do. Aviate first; communicate second. Still, I should have declared an emergency when requesting a return. However, the left engine oil pressure tape was still in green. When it dropped to red, I should have advised ATC and declared the emergency.


If this pilot had declared an emergency, what exactly would ATC have done to help? We spoke to one of the nation's busiest Approach Control Facilities to find out more.

What Constitutes An Emergency?

The FAA defines an emergency as "a distress or an urgency situation." According to the Air Traffic Control guide, "a pilot who encounters a distress condition should declare an emergency by beginning the initial communication with the word 'Mayday,' preferably repeated three times. For an Urgency condition, the word 'Pan-Pan' should be used in the same manner."

A Pan-Pan call should be used for urgent situations that are not immediately life threatening, but require assistance from someone on the ground. Pan-Pan urgency calls are only trumped by distress calls of "Mayday" in terms of priority.

Swayne Martin

There are plenty of times that you might encounter an urgency or distress situation, including (but not limited to):

  • Getting Lost
  • Engine Roughness
  • Engine Failure
  • Fire (Any Kind)
  • Loss Of Pressurization
  • Electrical Failure
  • Hydraulic Failure
  • Landing Gear Malfunctions
  • VFR Into IMC
  • Poor Weather
  • Medical Emergency
  • Low Fuel

ATC Marks Your Aircraft As "EM" For Emergency

ATC Facilities equipped with advanced radar and computer systems have the ability to add a data block to an aircraft target on their screens labeled "EM" for "Emergency." This helps controllers quickly identify your aircraft, so you'll never get "lost" amongst dozens of aircraft in a busy traffic area. While the primary focus for ATC is keeping aircraft separated from terrain and other traffic, you just became a hyper-focused target on their scope. Attention isn't removed from other aircraft, but the primary focus is now on you.

The next step for controllers is to query the pilot about the nature of their emergency. They'll need to know information, including: fuel onboard (hours and minutes), souls onboard, if rescue and firefighting vehicles are necessary, and the reason for your emergency. As we'll detail later on, ATC needs this information to begin coordinating a response.


For Pilots, Safety Overrules Regulations

According to FAR 91.3, "In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency." Speed restrictions? Gone. Airspace procedures? Gone. IFR clearance limits? Gone.

There's a lot you can do once you've declared an emergency. In the example detailed above, the Citation pilot deviated from an IFR clearance BEFORE declaring an emergency as they returned to the airport. If you need an immediate change of course, speed, or altitude, declaring an emergency might be your best option.


Controllers Prioritize Your Aircraft By...

The first priority for controllers is to separate you and other aircraft from terrain and traffic. Next, you'll be the primary focus as an emergency aircraft. If the emergency is critical and you're on a congested frequency, ATC may have you switch over to a secondary frequency dedicated just to you. Controllers are careful in doing this because they try to avoid making communications mid-flight while you're busy managing the aircraft. When the situation is critical and the frequency is busy, getting you onto a special frequency is one tool they can use.

Another strategy ATC can use is adding a second controller to your sector. While one controller handles normal traffic flow, the second controller may focus solely on you. According to the ATC Facility we spoke with, they will do this the majority of the time if staffing allows. This is a great resource to you as a pilot, having a controller dedicated just to you for assistance.


When aircraft cross into a new ATC Control Sector, they are handed off to a new controller on a separate frequency. In some places, this process is entirely automated. But when an emergency is in progress, these automated processes largely disappear. Controllers use a landline connection to speak with the next controller before handing off the emergency aircraft to them. This is an important step in guaranteeing a positive handoff between controllers. It's also a way for controllers to brief each other on the specifics of the situation which they might not be aware of.

Special Procedures May Be Used

When you declare an emergency, ATC knows that special procedures may be necessary. In one example we heard from ATC, a disoriented pilot declared an emergency when he inadvertently flew into IMC. The controller issued a heading vector, and the pilot consistently could not follow vectoring instructions. He was more than 90 degrees off-course every time.

The non-instrument rated pilot could not maintain an instrument scan to maintain altitude, speed, heading, and attitude. The controller initiated no-gyro vectors shortly after analyzing the situation and realizing the true problem. No-gyro vectors are as simple as ATC saying "turn left/right," followed by "stop turn." The pilot is to fly a constant rate turn, unless when turning to final when a half-rate turn should be flown.

Keep in mind, if you do not declare an emergency, ATC can do it for you. Controllers have the authority to declare an emergency for aircraft in distress in order to put emergency mitigation resources into motion. Similarly, if you fly for an airline with certified dispatchers, they too can declare an emergency for your flight under certain circumstances.

ATC Coordinates An Emergency Response For You

Once a pilot has declared an emergency, a chain of events is initiated by ATC. If necessary, controllers will assist the pilot in finding a suitable airport for landing, and begin coordinating with the control facility for that airport. They'll contact the tower as early as possible so that they can prepare for the emergency landing. Information transmitted includes: type of aircraft, tail number, nature of the emergency, fuel onboard, and souls onboard.

When no airport fire/rescue services are available, ATC will coordinate with local emergency response to get as much assistance available as possible. This is true for both emergency landings on-airport and off-airport. All of this is done in the background without you needing to ask.


Why Worry About Paperwork?

If something starts to go wrong, the last thing on your mind should be paperwork. And depending on your emergency, you might not even have to fill out paperwork! If you've experienced aircraft damage, flight control malfunctions, or have injured people, you're much more likely to see some follow-up. And if you're a professional pilot, your company will likely have a reporting procedure in place for you to describe the situation which led to the emergency.

The number one take-away ATC controllers wanted to share with you is that you should never hesitate to declare an emergency.

The safety of your flight, or paperwork? The simple fact is, declaring an emergency with ATC opens up a world of resources to a pilot. It could be the edge you need to get on the ground safely. "If there is any uncertainty at all, declare an emergency," one controller said.

Barnaby Kerr

Have you ever declared an emergency? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

Images Courtesy:

Recommended Stories

Latest Stories

    Load More
    Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via Email