Declaring an emergency is an aspect of aviation safety often surrounded by some misconceptions that may dissuade people from employing this in a time of need. Some think only the pilot can declare an emergency and many of them are hesitant to radio such a declaration because they are worried about the post-emergency consequences rather than seeking assistance for the situation they are currently dealing with.
Using pilot reports the the NASA-run Aviation Safety Reporting System, Immanuel Barshi and Todd Kowalski clarify these concerns and dispel the misconceptions in a concise presentation, Declaring an Emergency—Fact and Fiction. Many may find these facts surprising.
For example, pilots aren’t the only ones who can declare an emergency. Air traffic controllers, dispatchers, and airline/charter company representatives can make the declaration, and doing so without notifying the flight crew. ATC is not the sole decision maker on the type and amount of assistance given to an aircraft in distress. Yes, it gives the maximum assistance judged to be necessary, but pilots can demand or decline certain actions in the interest of safety. But pilots must communicate what they need and why, and if the situation improves, they can also terminate their declaration of an emergency.
For many pilots, especially those who fly professionally, facing an FAA violation seems to be an overriding concern. The FAA regulation 91.3 makes it clear that “the pilot in command may deviate from any rule…to the extent required to meet that emergency.” The NASA presentation then quotes an Air Safety Inspector: “I’ve never seen a pilot violated for deviating from a regulation when that pilot has either declared an emergency OR has stipulated in ANY written response to the FAA that an emergency existed at the time of the deviation.”
While the regulations provide immunity from any deviation committed to ensure safety during an emergency, they also say that pilots “may have to file a written report of a deviation during emergency situation only if one occurs.” The FAA routinely investigates most declared emergencies, reports IFR Magazine, but pilots are only involved if there are questions about the situation that the FAA can’t answer. Often the questions are answered with a simple phone call. It depends on the situation.
Perhaps the Aeronautical Information Manual says it best: “Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when it is believed that an emergency exists or is imminent, take a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances….” And under those circumstances, getting everyone on the ground safely should be the only thing on the minds of everyone involved.