There is always a wish to avoid declaring an emergency in flight, because of the mythical “paperwork” or the modern equivalent of the Inquisition that will follow. Instructors often try to pound it into students’ heads that declaring an emergency is not a big deal.
The problem is, most instructors have never had to declare one, so they have little to no experience in that department to draw upon.
I can tell you from experience two things: Declaring an emergency is really and truly no big deal, and for the average general aviation pilot, there is no paperwork involved, unless you decide to file a NASA ASRS report, which is strictly voluntary.
For the professional pilot, there is usually some required reporting to be done, but it’s no big deal. Every airline handles it differently, but the general process is as follows. Nearly every airline spells out in the company manuals those events that it deems an emergency situation, and the crew is often required—not asked, not prodded, not recommended, but required—to declare an emergency with ATC.
Common triggers are engine failures, flight control failures, pressurization problems, etc. There may be some variations based upon the fleets, the underlying terrain, and general company guidelines, but either way, when certain events happen, the captain is expected to declare an emergency and proceed accordingly. This will often, but not always, mean a diversion.
Sometimes, a pilot declares an emergency for reasons that may not be listed in the company manual. For example, years ago, I was the first officer on a flight in which a line of weather was building in front of us. We needed to stay within 50 miles of the shore, and the deviation over the water was going to take us in excess of that, and it was also going to be dicey on the fuel. If we could go the other way, we’d be around it in 20 miles, and all would be well. The controller, on the other hand, was not being cooperative to the point that she began to ignore our calls. As he watched the storms get bigger in the window, the captain declared an emergency, and what had been a very busy frequency got very quiet. The controller asked us what the problem was, and he told her that we had started deviating in the direction we needed. She tersely acknowledged his call, and when we were clear of the weather, he said the emergency conditions were over, and that was that. No paperwork, no phone calls, nothing.
When an airline crew has to declare an emergency—and especially when a diversion is required—there’s usually some kind of report required. The report is fairly simple: the date, city pair, the crew, ship (aircraft) number, and a summary of the events. There are usually two objectives to be fulfilled. First, the airline discloses the event to the FAA, and the FAA can use the data to track trends across the industry, especially if a mechanical issue is involved. The agency can also use it to get feedback on its services. Second, if a passenger later writes or calls to complain to the airline about the flight or wants more information about what happened, the report gives the company something to reference.
Declaring an emergency is simply not a big deal, and it shouldn’t be avoided just to evade providing information. If anything, declaring an emergency should be properly used as the tool that it is to maximize the resources that a pilot has available.—Chip Wright