Emergencies and ATC (part 3)

Last time, we talked about an emergency involving an Air Carrier that was handled in a near textbook manner. Several people asked about what actually happens during and after an Emergency is declared.

The Controller’s Handbook – the 7110.65 – devotes a whole chapter to guidance on Emergencies. It gives the following guidance to ATC personnel in Chapter 10.

“Because of the infinite variety of possible emergency situations, specific procedures cannot be prescribed. However, when you believe an emergency exists or is imminent, select and pursue a course of action which appears to be most appropriate under the circumstances and which most nearly conforms to the instructions in this manual.”

Wow, that says a lot. Basically, it tells the Controller to “Do what you need to do”. The next section of the Handbook, advises the Controller to solicit information from the pilot.

“Obtain enough information to handle the emergency intelligently. Base your decision as to what type of assistance is needed on information and requests received from the pilot because he/she is authorized by 14 CFR Part 91 to determine a course of action.”

So what does that mean? It means that the pilot and controller must exchange enough information for the controller to be able to help. It does not mean that the pilot does his or her best “Right Stuff” impersonation. Remember the opening lines in Tom Wolfe’s classic book?  The pilot with the “Right Stuff” would get on the PA and announce to the passengers “We got this little bitty ole warning light” – when in fact, the whole wing was on fire.

The controller cannot help in any positive way if the pilot does not provide all the information needed.

I saw a great example of this while I was doing ATC evaluations. I was in a VFR Tower observing operations. I noticed the Tower controller put a Lear Jet in position with a C310 on final. I thought this was going to be close but it should work. Well, the Lear was slow to start his take off roll. Therefore, the Tower controller issued the C310 a go around. I was surprised to see the C310 was very slow to accelerate and climb on the go around. As the C310 passed the tower, I was shocked to see the right engine feathered and the prop slowly windmilling. I asked the Tower controller if the C310 had declared an emergency. He said, “No, the pilot just mumbled something about ‘single engine”. Well, if the C310 had provided all the information and declared an emergency he would have had the runway to himself and not be put in the position of having to do a single engine go around.

Why would a pilot not declare an emergency and not request all possible assistance? Is it because of the perception that there will be “all that paperwork” or is it fear of the “Feds” finding some infraction of the rules and violating him or her. Or is it just human reluctance to admit there is something wrong or maybe we messed up? As pilots, we tend to be a self-reliant bunch. We are taught, even before our first solo, that we are the Pilot In Command; the ultimate authority of the safe conduct of the flight.

There is a tremendous amount of assistance that ATC can render during an emergency; as soon as a Controller realizes that an emergency exists or may exist, the entire ATC system mobilizes. The first thing a controller will do is notify the Supervisor (or the Front Line Manager, as they are now known). The next steps are specific to the situation but may involve coordination with other facilities or rescue services. The controller may start gathering weather information or soliciting PIREPs to find better weather. Usually, the Supervisor will dedicate one or more controllers to handling the emergency including moving other traffic to the other controller’s frequency.

A great example of the assistance available was the situation in Florida last year. A Private Pilot suddenly found himself flying a King Air after the commercial pilot became incapacitated. The pilot described the situation to ATC and asked for help. The controller working the flight knew a friend who had extensive experience in the aircraft involved. He called his friend’s cell phone and was able to relay enough information to operate the autopilot and flight controls and to achieve a successful outcome. In the meantime, ATC was clearing a path for the King Air to return to the airport, gathering weather, alerting rescue services, etc.

Of course, exactly as the ATP says; there are an infinite number of situations and not all are handled the same. In some situations, there is no amount of help that a person on the ground can provide to a person in the air. In that case, it is up to us, as PIC, to say, “Stand by”.

And what about all that paperwork? Next time we will talk about what happens after the emergency is over.

Emergencies and ATC Part 1

Emergencies and ATC Part 2