When we fly, our hope is that everything goes smoothly. We take care to build in redundancies and check and double check as much as possible. When things do go wrong, however, the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) teaches us about a couple of different radio calls. “Mayday” is a fairly well recognized distress call. Mention that in an airplane and the mind will immediately jump to “we’re going down.” But there’s another call that we learn about. One that is less severe but still urgent. “Pan Pan” doesn’t get much attention, but it’s come to mind as I listen to stories of pilots who will seemingly do anything to avoid declaring an emergency when things start going wrong. “Why not use Pan Pan?” I often think to myself. I began wondering if it has a place in real world aviation. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Where Are You From, Stranger?
The term “Pan Pan” gets its roots in the nautical world, and to this day, seems to be used there more than in aviation. Originating as a French word “panne,” meaning to break down, it’s use began in maritime environments as a distress call for non-life threatening circumstances. A boat that’s out of gas or breaks down, for instance, and needs help with a little urgency, but there is no immediate and direct danger.
There are many great podcasters and aviation writers who discuss various NTSB reports of airplane accidents. I don’t know a single pilot who loves to think about accidents, but these stories are analyzed to learn from their mistakes and glean takeaways to build redundancy in our own flying and hopefully prevent the same mistake from happening again. A trend I notice in these stories is that some pilots seem to avoid declaring an emergency at all costs. Maybe it’s the fear of having to deal with any paperwork or accountability on the ground, or maybe it’s simply machoism (one of the five hazardous attitudes), which is the same trait that causes some to refuse to stop and ask for directions in the pre-GPS days.
What’s The Difference?
AIM 6-3-1d explains the following:
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.
Declaring an emergency seems like a big deal, and it should be taken very seriously. However, sources like AOPA tell us that pilots shouldn’t fear making the call when it’s necessary. A popular opinion seems to be to declare an emergency if your situation warrants, or if in doubt, and then cancel it if the situation were to improve, or in the case of making a precautionary emergency declaration, not degrading further. Pilots seems to fear consequences or paperwork on the ground after the fact, but sources like Angelflight West suggest that rarely does that happen.
RELATED: Watch a simulated engine out emergency on the Clayviation YouTube Channel:
Time For Our Old Friend
Perhaps the hesitation to declare an emergency in certain situations can be compared to deciding on a late night trip to the hospital. You know something isn’t right, but it isn’t always a simple decision to determine if the situation warrants an ER visit. If this sort of dilemma happens in the air, and a mayday call seems a little dramatic for your situation, enter Pan Pan to save the day. You’ll still be declaring an emergency, and you’ll still receive priority from ATC, but you might feel better about the situation because you are communicating “I need help, but this isn’t a huge deal yet.” Listen to this ATC recording of a fellow pilot calling Pan Pan after his engine runs rough. It seems that appropriate use of Pan Pan are situations like a rough running engine, low fuel, or becoming lost.
Meet In The Middle
I’m fortunate to have not experienced an in flight emergency as of the time of this writing, and I hope it stays that way. I’d love to tell you that I would stay cool, calm and collected and follow the steps I’ve trained for. None of us will know how we will respond as pilots until we are in the situation, but after digging into “Pan Pan,” I intend to keep it nestled securely in my proverbial aviation toolkit. It’s the perfect tool to use when wrestling with knowing something isn’t right, but not knowing that declaring an emergency is warranted. It reminds me of the little screwdriver bit shaped like a star. It’s not the kind of thing that finds itself uselful a whole lot, but when you do stumble upon that screw with a star head, boy will you be glad you kept it.
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