Like Larry the Flying Guy on Facebook!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why are some pilots more likely to declare an emergency than others?

Not long ago, I got into a debate over at the Flying Friends Facebook group on when one should declare an emergency. This just happened to be a couple of days before the sick passenger emergency in the last post. The original post was on a vacuum failure in IMC. I said I would declare an emergency. Many others said they wouldn't. One poster even ridiculed another who said he would.

My position was seconded by a retired 30,000+ hour airline pilot and given another nod by a current 10,000+ hour airline pilot. So my small-by-comparison 3,000+ hours were vindicated. However, as the discussion lengthened, a couple of things really stuck out at me:

1. The lower the number of hours, the less likely one would be to declare an emergency. This is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. After all, it's just logical that the more experienced pilots would consider fewer things emergencies. We get hammered in simulator sessions every six months with serious emergencies, so we have practiced things repeatedly that every pilot hopes they will never see. We have had more than a taste of things gone wrong. One would think that after those experiences, we would shake off something "minor" like a bad attitude indicator.

2. Everyone who was a professional pilot agreed with me. Some general aviation pilots agreed, but everyone who disagreed was a general aviation pilot.

These trends really surprised me. I've spent a lot of time thinking about them and trying to understand where they came from. These trends, I think, reveal a clear distinction between the mindset of the professional versus those who fly by choice rather than check. Here are three sources for that different mindset that I think are likely.


I know there is, in some segment of the GA community, a disdain for airline pilots. We are looked down on by this set as mere "bus drivers". However, bus drivers drive thousands and thousands of miles a year on all sorts of roads no matter whether it's snowing or raining or any of a myriad of other sub-par conditions that keep Joe Driver's sports car in the garage. By the same token, we flying "bus drivers" fly in conditions from 36-knot crosswinds to dodging summertime air mass thunderstorms to shooting an ILS approach to a snow-covered runway where the visibility is 1/2 mile because the snow is still coming down. While Joe Pilot (who thinks airline pilots have it so easy) is sitting at his computer reading Air Fact's "Go or No Go" column and saying "No Go" to marginal VFR, we're in the air flying in the soup.

In other words, we've seen a lot. One commenter disagreed extremely harshly with me that a vacuum failure in IMC was an emergency. Ironically, I have more time just in actual instrument conditions alone than all of the hours he has in his logbook put together!

The last two paragraphs are not meant to puff myself up. Mark Twain is often erroneously given credit for saying, "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." When I had 300 hours, I was a hotshot CFI who knew it all. Now that I have 3000 hours, I know I don't know it all. However, those paragraphs are driving at this point:

With experience comes not just the skill required to meet danger if it arrives, but the ability to recognize it when has arrived.

In other words, the old adage (which Wikiquote attributes to the astronaut Frank Borman, although he was almost definitely just passing it down, as it has been around a lot longer than 2008) that "A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations which require the use of his superior skill." When you combine that with the other old saw, "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment," you get the sentence above.

So some of the reluctance to declare an emergency in this situation may simply be due to not having enough experience to recognize the danger that a dead vacuum pump poses to the safe outcome of a flight. Why get others involved over something as "trivial" as that? After all, isn't that why we practice partial panel flying as part of getting an instrument rating in the first place?

Anything that puts the safe outcome of a flight in doubt can be considered an emergency. Personally, I've spent enough hours slogging along in the soup that I know how quickly things can change and how insidious vertigo can be. That's why I would say right away that if my attitude indicator flopped over, I'd be declaring an emergency immediately.


Pilots are, in general, "can do" people. After all, just to get a private pilot certificate requires studying for and passing a written exam, the discipline to stick with 40+ hours of flying lessons even through the inevitable ups and downs, more studying for an oral exam, and all the time spent polishing everything up for the flight portion of the checkride.

The process tends to weed out those without the determination to set a goal and follow it all the way through to completion. That's why being in the top 2% of IQ qualifies you as a "genius" and gets you into Mensa, but successfully attaining a pilot certificate is something that less than .2% of the population has ever done. If you look it one way, it's 10x harder to become a pilot than it is to become a genius! (Yes, I am being facetious here.)

That determination and self-reliance is a good thing in most life situations, but it can also lead to pilots being unable to admit when they need help. They think that they should be able to handle anything on their own, so they are unwilling to declare an emergency in situations where they probably should.

Asking for help and/or declaring an emergency is not a sign of weakness. Being stubborn is not a sign of strength: it is a sign of weakness disguised as strength. There is no room in the cockpit for weakness at a critical moment, so check your ego and your stubbornness and if you need help, ask for it.


I've saved what I believe to be the most likely for the biggest number of pilots for last. There are probably many pilots who are reluctant to declare an emergency simply because they're reluctant to talk to ATC at all. They may realize something really bad is going on, and they may be humble wise enough to consider declaring an emergency, but they're too intimidated by the process of talking to someone "in control", or they may be unfamiliar with all the resources available to them if they'll just ask.

It may seem totally unbelievable that someone would be too afraid to ask for help, but I've seen the fear of "the system" in too many pilots to think it won't happen. I once gave a flight review to someone who had been flying for over two decades. As part of it, I asked him to plan a cross-country flight to a particular airport. He did a good job planning it, except he had planned a detour that added several dozen miles to the flight just so he could avoid transiting some Class B airspace along the way. And this is just one story of many like that.

It may be reluctance or it may simply be a general unawareness of what help a pilot can get by declaring an emergency; in either case, the outcome is the same: when you need help, it's not there, but it's waiting for you!

One of the reasons that I think that this is a big reason why airline pilots don't have a problem declaring an emergency when necessary whereas many GA pilots do is that airline pilots spend all day, every day working in the system. We talk to controllers hundreds of times a day. We're in the system so much we often have the next frequency tuned into the standby slot 30 miles before we're even switched over because we have them memorized. In fact, I know of more than one airline pilot who is in the system so much that they file IFR even if it's "clear and a million" because they're afraid to fly without ATC now!

This day-in, day-out familiarity with the system makes it second nature to us to declare an emergency if we need to. We know that controllers are humans, and we know they're an important member of the team. We know that like any good team-mate, they'll help us out if we need them to. In fact, in response to one commenter who said partial panel was no big deal, it was the 30,000 hour guy who said, "I'm glad that you're such a good pilot, but I need all the help I can get!"

Does this mean you should declare emergencies for everything? Of course not. In my 700 flights at the airline, we've only declared two emergencies. That means 99.72% of the time we don't (and there have been plenty of non-emergency things that have gone wrong on the other 698). In my 1900 flights total, I've only had three emergencies--one of which was a total engine failure. That means 99.95% of the time, I didn't declare anything. Here's hoping your rate is 100%, but if you need the help, don't let other people tell you that you shouldn't ask!


If you ever get into a situation where you do declare an emergency, here is a short list of the things you should do immediately:

1. Fly the airplane
2. Perform your memory items (you did memorize the bold printed items in your plane's POH, right?)
3. Fly the airplane
4. Run your checklist(s)
5. Fly the airplane

Remember: when you declare an emergency, it is still your airplane! ATC will do everything they can to help, but that doesn't mean they can fly the aircraft for you. It is still your responsibility to Get Things Done. Look at your emergency as a nail. If you ask, ATC can give you a hammer, but they can't use it for you: it's up to you to drive that nail in.

I'm going to get more into the responsibility that comes with being a pilot in the next post. See you next Wednesday!

No comments:

Post a Comment