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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What is an emergency?

In the previous post, I told the story of a recent emergency we had on a flight. It was easy to declare an emergency in this case because there was a big red warning light flashing on the glareshield saying that we may be on fire. However, most incidents that may occur in flight are not that cut and dried. So what exactly constitutes an emergency?

There is a saying in aviation that goes, "Some pilots will declare an emergency because of a failed magneto check. Others, upon having a wing fall off in flight, will merely request a lower altitude." This is one way of saying that there is no exact way to determine what constitutes an emergency.

The truth of this was borne out the first time we declared an emergency. Yes, the first time. The one I wrote about last post wasn't the first time I'd been in the cockpit when an emergency was declared. However, the first time was much more toward the first end ("mag check") of the spectrum.

The first time, we were heading to Charleston, WV. We were about 10 minutes out when the flight attendant called us to say that there was a passenger who was very pale and was having trouble breathing. We asked her to give the passenger oxygen and report back in five minutes. We had already started our descent, and in that part of the country there was no nearer airport, so we were definitely going to continue to the destination. We were also the only airplane in the entire airspace, so priority was not going to be a problem.

I called our operations staff for the normal "in range" call, which is something we do 10-20 minutes out to let them know we're getting close so they can start getting prepared for our arrival. If we have any special needs when we get there, like a passenger who will need a wheelchair, an unaccompanied minor, etc., we let them know as part of the call. This time, I told them we'd need an ambulance to meet the plane and briefly explained why.

Since "Charlie West" isn't a very big airport, the taxi time after landing is short, so we'd be at the gate in no time. For these reasons, I personally wouldn't declare an emergency. Everything would already be waiting for us and there is no other air traffic we'd need priority over. All we need to do is concentrate on the flight and land.

However, the Captain did declare an emergency. Is this the wrong decision? Not at all. Would not declaring be the wrong decision? No. I look at it as overkill, but no harm done except for a bunch of extra paperwork. The outcome would have been the same in either case under these particular circumstances.

(In case you're curious, I don't know what caused the passenger's problem. Once we landed and got to the gate, he was taken out of the airplane on a stretcher to the ambulance that was there waiting for him. However, he was up and walking under his own power within about 15 minutes of receiving treatment from the paramedics.)

What if we were in the same circumstances but going to Newark instead of Charleston? In that case, I wouldn't hesitate to declare an emergency. Why?

Because in Newark, there are a ton of other planes flying around, and sequencing all of us into the 20-mile conga line that New York Approach's controller/magicians keep churning along would take several extra precious minutes. In addition, once on the ground, the taxi time can be substantial. Declaring an emergency in this case could be the difference between life and death, as it would cut many, many minutes off the time to the gate. In this case, not declaring an emergency would be foolish.

One of our other pilots was in this scenario once, and on landing tower cleared them straight to the gate. This may not sound like much if you're used to a smaller airport where the taxi time is relatively short and you go directly from tower to ground and you're at the ramp in no time. In big airports, there's also a ramp frequency you use near the gate, which adds even more time. You also may have to give way to one or more other planes on the way in, since at Newark it's not usual to have at least a couple dozen airplanes moving on the taxiways at the same time. Being cleared straight to the gate means everyone else is getting pushed out of your way, and is a big deal when making your way around an airport as complex as this:

Even by large airport standards, Newark is a maze.

So not only is it sometimes hard to tell whether something may not be enough to be elevated to "emergency" status, sometimes the same thing definitely IS an emergency and under other circumstances may simply be an urgent condition.

In short:

Q: What is an emergency?
A: Anything that you believe reduces the certainty of the safe outcome of your flight.

Note the words "anything" and "you believe". When you're the pilot, an emergency is what you say it is. Not everyone will agree, but you're the one whose posterior is up in the air, not firmly attached to a chair on the ground.

This may be more useful to you than the FAA's definition in the generally-excellent Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, which unhelpfully just says that an emergency is "a distress or urgent condition." (Thanks for nothing, PHAK!) However, that's not all there is to the answer.

In the next post, I'll go into some of the psychology involved in making the emergency declaration decision and examine a surprising difference between what GA pilots and airline pilots consider an emergency.

See you next Wednesday!

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The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program and a former FAASafety Team representative. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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