Fly Like a Pro — Part 10: ATC and Emergencies

The participants in the first simulator session all appeared to be reluctant to tell the controllers that they had an emergency. What were they afraid of? Do pilots risk their certificates and bank accounts by declaring an emergency?

In the air traffic control protocol, a pilot who has declared an emergency has priority over all other aircraft. When it is imperative to get an airplane on the ground declaring an emergency is the best solution to the problem. Declaring an emergency was an option on both the first and second simulator scenarios of this project — yet not a single participant did so in the first scenario … even when the situation had progressed to the point where it was the only logical way out. I asked the participants one at a time as they left the simulator after the first session about the option to declare an emergency. Every participant showed a reluctance to do so with the reason being repercussions from the FAA.

Participants thought they would lose their pilot certificate, or get a monetary fine if they declared an emergency. They freely volunteered their distrust of the FAA, and a few had even questioned if my entire research project was in fact an “undercover” FAA project to trap pilots. This attitude was so universal among the pilots that I started explaining my research immediately after I introduced myself. They became much more comfortable when they started to believe that I was a pilot just like them, and my goals were to get information for better training not to collect information on them. Remember to get pilot volunteers, I sent out 1,189 invitations to join the project. Of those I ultimately received 139 response cards in return. I will always suspect that of the 1,050 pilots that did not respond some did not send the card back because they thought it was some kind of FAA “sting operation.” So in a way, the FAA’s poor reputation cost me — and you — valuable information that we might otherwise have had.

So pronounced and so universal among the participants was this fearful attitude that I contacted the Air Traffic Control Support Manager at the Nashville, Tennessee Air Traffic Control Tower. This manager and I have known each other a very long time and he has always been helpful. He is also a pilot and can always see things from both sides. From his account, there is a great deal of judgment involved in how controllers handle emergencies. Believe it or not, there really is no hard and fast guideline about what to do when a pilot declares an emergency. In most cases, if the emergency ends with a safe landing, nothing at all happens. The controller will record that a pilot declared an emergency on FAA form 7230-4, which is their Daily Record of Facility Operations. There are only three times when the controllers are required to notify the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO). Paragraph 4-1-4 of the ATC handbook says:

Notify the Washington Headquarters, and the appropriate FSDO through the Regional Operations Center whenever:

  1. The aircraft [that declared an emergency] is an air carrier, a commuter, or an air taxi; or
  2. The aircraft is carrying a member of Congress or prominent persons; or
  3. The emergency is or may become newsworthy by coming to the attention of the public or the news media.”

Note: When you fly a General Aviation airplane that is not an air taxi, and if you declare an emergency, the controller is not even required to tell the FAA enforcement branch, which is the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO).

There are also different levels of emergency preparedness. If a pilot reports that they have a rough running engine and that they need to come straight to the airport, the controller will give the pilot vectors and expedite arrival. The word emergency may never be uttered. The controller may ask the pilot if any further assistance is needed. If the pilot says, “No, I think I will make it to the airport,” the controller will alert the Crash, Fire, and Rescue (CFR) personnel that there is a Level 1 emergency alert. All this means is that the CFR people get up from the dinner table, or push back from their card game and go sit in their trucks. They open the building doors and start the truck’s engine. If the airplane lands without further incident, they shut down the truck, close the doors, and get back to dinner. The pilot never knows this happened. If the pilot declares an emergency… Initially, the same thing would happen — the controller would ask if the pilot needs further assistance. If the pilot will not declare an emergency, the controller can do it anyway. This rolls the trucks into position just in case they are needed.

When the airplane lands safely, the event is recorded on the daily log and that is as far as it goes. If the controller does anything, the first notification would be to file FAA form 7230-6, which is a Flight Assist Report. When this form is filed a copy is sent to the local FSDO, but this could be a good thing. A controller can actually receive a monetary award for “outstanding” assistance. The most common examples of this are helping lost pilots get found or preventing a gear up landing. The Flight Assist Report even recognizes that other pilots can provide flight assistance. Paragraph 4-1-5 of the controllers’ handbook states:

Pilot Recognition

  1. When a pilot aids in providing flight assistance, the Air Traffic Manager shall review the circumstances, and if appropriate, write a letter of recognition.
  2. When the pilot assistance is of an outstanding nature, the Air Traffic Manager shall review the circumstances, and if appropriate, prepare a regional level letter of recognition.

When the Flight Assist Report reaches the FSDO they may not do anything with it. In the case where a controller helps a lost pilot, the Safety Program Manager at the FSDO office might locate the pilot that was lost or the flight instructor in the case where the lost pilot was a student. The Safety Program Manager would in that case suggest additional VFR navigation skills are taught. Otherwise the CFI might never know the student got lost (the student probably will not tell) and therefore not realize additional training was needed. Nobody gets “in trouble,” the Safety Program Manager is the person in the FAA office who wears the white hat — he or she does not have enforcement authority. The Nashville Air Traffic Controller Tower reports that they file a Flight Assist Report at the rate of one or two reports per year.

I asked the Air Traffic Support Manager, “It seems that most emergencies whether actually declared or not are handled ‘in house’ but some do go farther. How many declared emergencies ultimately results in a pilot violation?” “It is rare, very rare,” he said, “and the violations usually are due to some other problem other than the emergency that comes out in the questions.” He told me the story of two emergencies where pilots eventually were violated, but both violations had nothing to do with the fact that an emergency had been declared. One involved a pilot flying a light twin-engine airplane that declared an emergency and in the excitement landed on a taxiway. The airplane was not damaged and the pilot was unhurt. However, through questioning it was discovered that the pilot was only single-engine rated. The other involved a pilot flying a single engine airplane who had some sort of engine problem, declared an emergency, but landed safely. It was later discovered that this pilot had no Medical Certificate. “Both those pilots blamed the emergency for their violations, but in truth the emergency did not get them into trouble, they did that on their own,” the controller concluded.

THE BOTTOM LINE: If a pilot “willfully and maliciously” breaks a regulation and an emergency is also part of the incident, the controller can notify the FSDO that they suspect that a “deviation” from the rules has occurred. This notification is completed on FAA form 8020-17, the “Preliminary Pilot Deviation Report.” What happens when the FSDO gets the emergency paperwork? We look at the FAA’s reaction to emergencies next week…