When problems arise in the cockpit there are many levels of concern and, when asking for assistance, your terminology should reflect the proper level of that concern.
THE ‘POTENTIALLY DISTRESSFUL SITUATION.’
This is the mildest level of concern. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) defines this as: ‘A condition about being concerned for safety and requiring timely but not immediate assistance.’ The condition exists when a pilot is *unsure* and concerned of their position, fuel endurance, or weather. A pilot in a potentially distressful situation should tell ATC the problem and use the word ‘immediate.’
Example: ‘Approach, Cessna N1234A. Request immediate assistance. I need to climb or descend out of icing conditions.’ A pilot may also use ‘immediate’ if IMC is encountered and an IFR clearance is needed.
Inside Information: Until recently, the word ‘immediate’ was only be used by controllers when they were advising pilots of a dangerous and imminent situation. The latest revision to the AIM now allows pilots to get quick action that is short of declaring an emergency by using the word ‘immediate.’
THE ‘MINIMUM FUEL ADVISORY.’
This advisory indicates that the aircraft’s fuel supply has reached a state where, upon arrival at the destination, it can accept little or no delay. This is *not* an emergency situation, but merely indicates that an emergency situation is possible should any undue delay occur. Pilots should advise ATC of a minimum fuel condition by saying on initial contact that they have minimum fuel after the call sign.
Example: ‘Nashville approach, N1234C, minimum fuel.’ If it become apparent that reaching the destination is not possible, make plans to divert to a closer airport.
THE ‘DISTRESSED CONDITION.’
The AIM defines this as: ‘A condition of being threatened by serious or imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance.’ A distress condition exists when there is fire, mechanical difficulties, or structural damage. If you are in ‘distress’ you should declare an emergency.
Example: ‘New York Approach, Cessna N1234B, declaring emergency. We’ve had a birdstrike and the airframe is compromised. Request vectors to nearest runway for landing.’
ON DECLARING ‘EMERGENCY‘
If a situation develops that clearly threatens the safety of the flight, say the word ’emergency.’ Pilots should never be afraid to declare an emergency. It has become somewhat of an ‘urban legend’ that declaring an emergency can get a pilot into some sort of trouble or force them into a mountain of paperwork. It is true, on very rare occasion, a pilot has been violated after declaring an emergency, but the violation is almost always for something other than the emergency. Usually, there is no paperwork at all and the pilot is not disciplined. At most you might be asked to answer some questions for the FAA’s research files, but answering the questions is *optional.*
BOTTOM LINE: If you have a problem in the air, you cannot get in trouble by simply asking for help. In fact, declaring an emergency can be like a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card. Use it wisely, but do not be afraid to use it. Know the proper term to fit the proper situation. Your message will be received and understood better and just knowing ‘how’ will make all your flights that much safer.