Emergencies and ATC

ATC TowerDeclaring an emergency is one of the easiest actions a pilot can take.

FAR 91.3 spells it out very clearly. “The pilot-in-command of an aircraft is directly responsible for and is the final authority as to the operation of that aircraft. In an emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot-in-command may deviate from any rule in 14 CFR Part 91, to the extent required to meet that emergency.”

Pretty simple, right? The Pilot in Command (PIC) may deviate from any rule in Part 91. However like most things in aviation, it doesn’t end there. The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) goes on to state: “An emergency can be either a distress or urgency condition. Pilots do not hesitate to declare an emergency when they are faced with distress conditions such as fire, mechanical failure, or structural damage. However, some are reluctant to report an urgency condition when they encounter situations which may not be immediately perilous, but are potentially catastrophic. An aircraft is in at least an urgency condition the moment the pilot becomes doubtful about any condition that could adversely affect flight safety. This is the time to ask for help, not after the situation has developed into a distress condition.”

Recently, a situation occurred involving an Air Carrier aircraft at a large metro airport. The airport was operating in a reduced runway capacity due to construction. Arrivals were assigned a runway that had a strong crosswind – on the order of 35 knots. The exchange that follows is paraphrased for the purpose of this discussion.

On initial contact with the Tower, the Air Carrier said, “If we don’t get a different runway, we’ll declare an emergency”

OK, that got the controller’s attention. The Air Carrier included no other information; nothing about operational limitations, fuel status, equipment status, etc. The controller said he would work on the request. The Air Carrier said “We are circling to the other runway – get everybody out of the way”

Was the PIC exercising his authority under 91.3? Clearly, he was. The PIC, for whatever reason felt that he could not operate safely on the crosswind runway. That is certainly within his right and his obligation to safely conduct the flight. The breakdown however comes in the lack of communication afterwards. Was there a reason for the need to circle immediately? Could the flight have held for a few minutes to coordinate the runway? Were they low on fuel? Or have a mechanical issue that prevented landing on the assigned runway? We cannot tell from listening to the very short clip available on the internet. But, the controller did what he had to do; he got the other runway cleared and the Air Carrier landed without further incident.

What is troubling is what didn’t transpire in between. The Air Carrier started a turn towards the final approach course of the crossing runway. In a very congested area, such as the one in this incident, adjacent airports are running operations in very close proximity. We don’t know if there was another aircraft on final. We don’t know if the runway was occupied by a departure or a tug towing an aircraft across the runway. The entire operation would have been much smoother and safer to all the other aircraft involved if the PIC had communicated the reason for the emergency. It doesn’t have to be a detailed or lengthy explanation. A simple one word answer “Fuel” would have told the controller everything that he needed to know.

Communication is the key to all that we do in Aviation. Good clear concise professional communication. During the course of almost 30 years as a Controller and Front Line Manager, I have worked countless emergencies. Not all emergencies require immediate action. Yes, the engine failure in a single or an onboard fire requires a quick response from all concerned.

But, most emergencies actually play out over a longer period of time. For example, a very common occurrence is a hydraulic failure in a large aircraft. On approach, the crew realizes that they have a hydraulic warning. This is an emergency in every sense of the word. The crew is in doubt as to the safe outcome of the flight. Maybe the flaps or slats will not operate; nose wheel steering or brakes could be affected. But the airplane is not going to fall out of the sky. They elect to abandon the approach and work on the problem. With good communication to and from ATC, both sides know what to expect. The crew needs to get a delaying vector, run some checklists, dump fuel, call company, etc. ATC will continue to run operations while getting the Crash Fire Rescue (CFR) assets in place. When the crew decides to turn inbound, the runway is clear, all previous traffic is out of the way and CFR is in position. There was minimal impact to the other users and the emergency aircraft got everything they needed.

Why? Because everyone communicated! Contrast that to the situation described earlier. It appears (and I stress appears because we don’t have the whole story given the short clip available) that there was only one-way communication involved.

Next week, we’ll look at another Air Carrier emergency that is a textbook example of good communications during a very stressful incident.