Come Help Me: Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

Come Help Me: Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

Why the alliteration?

6−1−1. Pilot Responsibility and Authority  

In an emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot-in-command may deviate from any rule in 14 CFR Part 91, Subpart A, General, and Subpart B, Flight Rules, to the extent required to meet that emergency. 

The plan of this pontificating, but penitent, professional pilot was to pen this “mayday” story for the May issue of T&T rather than June. It certainly would have better aligned with the Spring holiday and said author’s sometimes playful panache. But due to requests from billions and billions (thus spoke Carl Sagan (and Zarathustra – Nietzsche)) of enquiring minds, last month’s article, “Max Mania” about the B-737 MCAS, prompted traffic priority at the publisher and is the reason for this month-mixing-mayhem. 

And now, like the 737 Max, misbehaving AOA sensors have invaded GA and precipitated the grounding of yet another entire fleet: The Cirrus Vision Jet. May’s MCAS article and the priority it was given at the press seems to have prophetically provided a plausible prologue for a story about requesting traffic priority if our own plane presents us with a pickle of a problem. “Mayday, mayday, mayday” is itself an alliteration-like three-peat (the reason for which will follow), and thus perfectly personifies this Nietzsche referencing, alliteration polluted, preparatory paragraph. 

ICAO’s Warm Beer

The mayday procedural word was originated in 1923 by a senior radio officer in London. He proposed the expression “mayday” from the French “m’aider” (help me). It’s now used to signal an emergency by aviators, mariners and in some countries firefighters, police and transportation companies. The call is given three times in a row to prevent it from being mistaken for similar-sounding phrases and to distinguish an actual mayday call from a message about a mayday call – and thus the alliteration three-peat. In 1927, mayday replaced SOS as the standard distress call. Commonly used worldwide for years, it’s only now beginning in the U.S. to replace our traditional aviation-radio transmission of “we are declaring an emergency.” 

Was the delay because of our well-known, pilot-cowboy mentality of bucking all things involuntarily imposed or foreign: the metric system, warm beer, driving on the wrong side of the road and unshaven armpits? Or perhaps because most inflight emergencies that prompt our distress are not normally the stereotypical Hollywood type, “Cap’n it’s the dilithium crystals’ – we’re goin’ down!” type of an emergency. Our situation may only require expedited traffic priority or special services after landing such as ARFF, an ambulance or cold beer and a pink plastic razor. Our consternation over ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) terminology – line up and wait vs. position and hold, millibars vs. inches of mercury and mayday instead of emergency, for example, will likely be a battle against our rebellious nature and the movie stereotype mayday call to which we’ve all grown accustomed.

It Sounds Dire

As you know, the dial-a-disaster chamber never operates in day VMC, with both engines producing thrust and all flight controls operating normally. Each takeoff, approach and landing will include all the standard weather phenomenon and system emergencies plus runaway trim, full stalls and even cold crew meals – have you ever seen such cruelty? (Blazing Saddles). 

During the most recent cycle of simulator training at my carrier, we transitioned to using mayday instead of declaring an emergency. And when we used mayday in the sim for each and every one of the above situations, it did indeed make them sound direr than “simply” declaring an emergency. After transmitting “mayday, mayday, mayday,” it’s difficult to keep our Hollywood trained mind from hearing screaming passengers and the hero yelling, “We’re goin’ down!” But picture if you will (in my Rod Serling voice), a routine inflight medical emergency with the need for traffic priority, a diversion and ARFF after landing. I’ve had about a half-dozen of these in real life, in both Part 121 and 91, and a few more in the dark and scary sim. In each of them, I declared an emergency, and in each, the person in need of medical attention survived – except the ones in the sim – no one gets out of there unscathed. After transmitting mayday, mayday, mayday so many times, it became more comfortable, but we found that adding the “E” word along with mayday made it feel less catastrophic.

An Example Mayday/Emergency Call

Make the initial call on the frequency in use, but if not possible, squawk 7700 and call on 121.5. The call should contain the name of the station addressed, your call-sign, the nature of the emergency, fuel (in minutes), the number of SOB’s (souls on board), your intentions and your request. Since the radio call is supposed to begin with “mayday, mayday, mayday,” in order to combat our difficulty in the transition to using mayday instead of emergency, perhaps we could squeeze in the word “emergency,” and transmit something like this: “Mayday, mayday, mayday. Albuquerque Center, Cirrus 117 Charlie Romeo; we have a medical emergency. One hundred sixty minutes of fuel on board and four SOB’s. We need to land immediately at Taos. Request radar vectors for the RNAV 13 and ARFF after landing.” 

By using the attention-getting and traffic-stopping word “mayday” like the ICAO folks want, but then adding our Yankee emergency declaration, perhaps we can quiet the Hollywood, no-warm-beer-cowboy within us and still receive the priority and assistance we need. But don’t mention the beer or pink razor thing – I was only kidding and the
controller may not have my sense of humor. In any case, this phraseology has evolved over time to provide clarity and brevity in communications and to ensure that phrases are unambiguous. Don’t freeze up over the verbiage though, use plain language and any format that you want if necessary – remember the exceptions and authority granted over the piece’s parts and subparts of the FAR’s in an emergency.    

Wings Fall Off

One of my favorite Far Side cartoons by Gary Larson goes something like this: The picture shows a doofus-like guy sitting in a passenger seat on an airliner with multiple controls on the armrest. One control is a two-position switch labeled “Wings stay on” and “Wings fall off.” The caption reads: “Fumbling for his recline button, Ted unwittingly instigates a disaster.” The humorous inference, of course, is that Ted jettisoned the wings. An engine fire or failure, in the weather or at night, has historically been the direst of inflight emergencies that we face. But engine failures, while rare, that are handled with a nominal amount of training and skill are a recoverable event. As our
character Ted discovered, a catastrophic airframe, flight control (or stabilizer trim, i.e. Alaska 261, Lion Air 610, Ethiopian 302) failure can be an unrecoverable situation that no amount of training or luck can remedy, doofus involvement or not. And that’s no laughing matter. 

So, why use humor to discuss in-flight emergencies and the use of mayday?  Because if you fly long enough, most of us will eventually experience a life-threatening (yours or one of your passengers’) in-flight situation. And if it’s your first time you will likely experience a shock factor, a moment (or three) of disbelief, some confusion and then time compression (you may even temporarily freeze up). The event will in no way be funny at the time but learning about the psychological effects during a stressful situation by using this type of humorous format may help you to remember and then to recognize them. Humor will also lower the mayday Hollywood-hurdle when the door to this dangerous dimension swings opens. 

You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

– Rod Serling

 Inflight problems can sometimes feel surreal. But let’s not allow the use of
mayday to compound or elevate our anxiety to another dimension of reality. Our bodies react to such critical events through the amygdala and the adrenal gland – and there’s little we can do to prevent it, but we can resist. We practice hair-raising scenarios in the simulator not only to rehearse the procedures but to help override our human nature to be afraid, to fight or flee and also to negate the perception of time compression. Hopefully, this humorous approach, and the opening paragraph’s alliteration-saturated use of the letter “P,” desensitized you to the use of the repetitive mayday, mayday, mayday radio call; which in
itself can add adrenaline and make it seem as though we are overreacting and overstating the seriousness of our problem. 

Another upside to starting your call with mayday, however, is that you almost certainly won’t hear someone advising or admonishing you with, “You’re transmitting on guard – check your frequency.” Just remember, unless you have Ted riding in the back or some other button pushing doofus, your cool, calm demonstration of some of that pilot stuff and using the mayday, mayday, mayday call will certainly carry, carry, carry – the, the, the – day, day, day. Is there an echo in here?  

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