May Day, May Day, May Day

Partial Engine Failure


“Did we hit a bird, ” I started to say…

There was no response from the cockpit. Barely a few seconds later I heard,

” Indy Center, Nxxxxx”.
“Go ahead, Nxxxxx, ” Indy Center responded.
“I want to declare an emergency. I am unable to maintain altitude, I want to land Parkersburg”
“What’s the problem,” queried Indy Center.
“I don’t have manifold pressure….I am losing engine power,” responded the pilot.

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May Day is the prescribed distress signal that a pilot transmits in an emergency. It is the equivalent of SOS.  Once uttered, air traffic control (ATC) will go to unlimited lengths to provide guidance, and help the pilot, and make any and all attempts to bring the pilot and passengers safely down. Another handy term is Pan Pan. If you are in trouble, but it is not life threatening, you can use Pan Pan. This conveys, to rescue personnel that, it is not as urgent as the May Day communication.

There was a time, when pilots were reluctant to use these very useful tools when they were in trouble. Declaring an emergency doesn’t get a pilot in trouble, in fact, it brings forth incredible amount of help from ATC.

Practicing simulated emergency procedures  is an important part of flight training. It is also one of the key things that are reviewed during a Flight Review or during recurrent training. Pilots review and practice emergency situations from engine failures, to loss of electrical power, to engine fires and other potential, unexpected incidents, to be prepared to handle such situations when and if they occur.

Still, every pilot hopes it is one of those things, that will never happen to him or her!

The weather on Sunday proved iffy. Not only was a weather system expected to move in bringing rain, instrument conditions and poor visibility, but also winds were expected to pick up by noon gusting as much as 40 knots. Throughout the weekend we had monitored the weather and had decided earlier on, that the best plan was to depart SGH as early as possibly, to allow us to stay ahead of the storm.

As planned the two aircraft departed well before our original planned departure time of 8 am.



Barely an hour into our flight, we heard a thump. That day, the stars were perfectly aligned for us. While I would hope to never experience an engine out, if it did, these were the perfect conditions to experience it:

  1. We had a pilot, who could maintain a calm and cool exterior, despite what might be transpiring within. And most importantly, he knew his aircraft well.
  2. We had a pilot who was not afraid  to declare an emergency when he sensed trouble
  3. Propitious enough, how often do you expect to declare an emergency when you are over an airport with the largest runway as much as 8000+ ft?
  4. While we knew a weather system was imminent, and had departed earlier than planned, on an instrument flight plan, here we were in communication with ATC, having passed through some whiffs of clouds, under clear VFR skies.
  5. If that was not enough, how often do you expect to do so  with a 4000+ hour veteran Air Force Pilot in the right seat?

Exactly a little over seven minutes after declaring an emergency at 9,000ft, under reduced power we descended and landed safely on the longest runway at Parkersburg Airport (PKB) in West Virginia, without any further damage to the aircraft or inconvenience to passengers. It could have as well been a perfect example of a simulated engine out practice flight.

There is a world of difference between a simulated engine failure and an actual in-flight engine failure. In this particular situation, I was merely an observer, but there are many things to learn from any incident that one is involved in:

  • The ultimate factor that affects the outcome of such an incident is the pilot’s attitude,  and response to such a situation. Staying calm not only instills greater confidence among the passengers, but also enables the pilot to review and remember past training and allow him/her to determine the right solution to the problem.
  • Once a decision is made, it is best to stick to it till the end. Being fickle or wavering between multiple options will cause valuable time to be lost and might even result in an unwarranted ending.
  • There will always be some unknown issues, it is best to stay calm and act in a logical fashion

The incident threw an unexpected  curve ball. It required us to hanger the aircraft, and rent a car so we could drive back to our destination. It implies untold expenses to the pilot owner to figure our the cause, and fix the airplane, before it can be flown back to its airport home base.

Only later we realized, once we were past PKB, there was no airport within easy gliding distance along our route. In truth, that day each one of us was fortunate.

Any incident/accident that one walks away from is a blessing.


Declaring an Emergency: Fact of Fiction
Declaring an Emergency
Emergency Demystified
 Ask Air Traffic Control: When Flights Declare Emergency

4 thoughts on “May Day, May Day, May Day

  1. Steve April 29, 2015 / 10:58 am

    …brings back memories of a flight in IFR conditions I was making between NJ and VA in a C182 when, just west of Dulles, I experienced carb icing for the first time. For some reason I was reluctant to declare a May Day but I did let ATC know in no uncertain terms that I was steadily losing power and I needed to get down (right now!) We landed in Frederick uneventfully…and very happily. But I could have used that 4,000+ hour Air Force pilot in the right seat!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Flynthings April 29, 2015 / 8:13 pm

      Ice is another scaring encounter. Especially since more than likely you are in the clouds when it happens! Glad it ended well.


  2. flynthings April 30, 2016 / 12:40 am

    Reblogged this on Fly 'n Things and commented:

    Technically, May 1st is considered May Day: it is International workers day.

    But, May Day is also a distress call. One that not every pilot expects to make in his or he lifetime.

    Once in a while it becomes necessary.

    One year ago today, it was a necessity…

    Liked by 1 person

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