Section 3. Distress and Urgency Procedures
6-3-1. Distress and Urgency
a. A pilot who encounters a distress or urgency
condition can obtain assistance simply by contacting
the air traffic facility or other agency in whose area of
responsibility the aircraft is operating, stating the
nature of the difficulty, pilot's intentions and
assistance desired. Distress and urgency communications procedures are prescribed by the International
Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), however, and
have decided advantages over the informal procedure
b. Distress and urgency communications procedures discussed in the following paragraphs relate to
the use of air ground voice communications.
c. The initial communication, and if considered
necessary, any subsequent transmissions by an
aircraft in distress should begin with the signal
MAYDAY, preferably repeated three times. The
signal PAN-PAN should be used in the same manner
for an urgency condition.
d. Distress communications have absolute priority
over all other communications, and the word
MAYDAY commands radio silence on the frequency
in use. Urgency communications have priority over
all other communications except distress, and the
word PAN-PAN warns other stations not to interfere
with urgency transmissions.
e. Normally, the station addressed will be the
air traffic facility or other agency providing air traffic
services, on the frequency in use at the time. If the
pilot is not communicating and receiving services,
the station to be called will normally be the air traffic
facility or other agency in whose area of responsibility the aircraft is operating, on the appropriate
assigned frequency. If the station addressed does not
respond, or if time or the situation dictates, the
distress or urgency message may be broadcast, or a
collect call may be used, addressing “Any Station
f. The station addressed should immediately
acknowledge a distress or urgency message, provide
assistance, coordinate and direct the activities of
assisting facilities, and alert the appropriate search
and rescue coordinator if warranted. Responsibility
will be transferred to another station only if better
handling will result.
g. All other stations, aircraft and ground, will
continue to listen until it is evident that assistance is
being provided. If any station becomes aware that the
station being called either has not received a distress
or urgency message, or cannot communicate with the
aircraft in difficulty, it will attempt to contact the
aircraft and provide assistance.
h. Although the frequency in use or other
frequencies assigned by ATC are preferable, the
following emergency frequencies can be used for
distress or urgency communications, if necessary or
1. 121.5 MHz and 243.0 MHz. Both have a
range generally limited to line of sight. 121.5 MHz is
guarded by direction finding stations and some
military and civil aircraft. 243.0 MHz is guarded by
military aircraft. Both 121.5 MHz and 243.0 MHz are
guarded by military towers, most civil towers, FSSs,
and radar facilities. Normally ARTCC emergency
frequency capability does not extend to radar
coverage limits. If an ARTCC does not respond when
called on 121.5 MHz or 243.0 MHz, call the nearest
tower or FSS.
2. 2182 kHz. The range is generally less than
300 miles for the average aircraft installation. It can
be used to request assistance from stations in the
maritime service. 2182 kHz is guarded by major radio
stations serving Coast Guard Rescue Coordination
Centers, and Coast Guard units along the sea coasts
of the U.S. and shores of the Great Lakes. The call
“Coast Guard” will alert all Coast Guard Radio
Stations within range. 2182 kHz is also guarded by
most commercial coast stations and some ships and
6-3-2. Obtaining Emergency Assistance
a. A pilot in any distress or urgency condition
should immediately take the following action, not
necessarily in the order listed, to obtain assistance:
1. Climb, if possible, for improved communications, and better radar and direction finding detection.
However, it must be understood that unauthorized
climb or descent under IFR conditions within
controlled airspace is prohibited, except as permitted
by 14 CFR Section 91.3(b).
2. If equipped with a radar beacon transponder
(civil) or IFF/SIF (military):
(a) Continue squawking assigned Mode A/3
discrete code/VFR code and Mode C altitude
encoding when in radio contact with an air traffic
facility or other agency providing air traffic services,
unless instructed to do otherwise.
(b) If unable to immediately establish communications with an air traffic facility/agency,
squawk Mode A/3, Code 7700/Emergency and
3. Transmit a distress or urgency message
consisting of as many as necessary of the following
elements, preferably in the order listed:
(a) If distress, MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAY-DAY; if urgency, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN, PAN-PAN.
(b) Name of station addressed.
(c) Aircraft identification and type.
(d) Nature of distress or urgency.
(f) Pilots intentions and request.
(g) Present position, and heading; or if lost,
last known position, time, and heading since that
(h) Altitude or flight level.
(i) Fuel remaining in minutes.
(j) Number of people on board.
(k) Any other useful information.
Pilot/Controller Glossary Term- Fuel Remaining.
b. After establishing radio contact, comply with
advice and instructions received. Cooperate. Do not
hesitate to ask questions or clarify instructions when
you do not understand or if you cannot comply with
clearance. Assist the ground station to control
communications on the frequency in use. Silence
interfering radio stations. Do not change frequency or
change to another ground station unless absolutely
necessary. If you do, advise the ground station of the
new frequency and station name prior to the change,
transmitting in the blind if necessary. If two-way
communications cannot be established on the new
frequency, return immediately to the frequency or
station where two-way communications last existed.
c. When in a distress condition with bailout, crash
landing or ditching imminent, take the following
additional actions to assist search and rescue units:
1. Time and circumstances permitting, transmit
as many as necessary of the message elements in
subparagraph a3 above, and any of the following that
you think might be helpful:
(a) ELT status.
(b) Visible landmarks.
(c) Aircraft color.
(d) Number of persons on board.
(e) Emergency equipment on board.
2. Actuate your ELT if the installation permits.
3. For bailout, and for crash landing or ditching
if risk of fire is not a consideration, set your radio for
4. If it becomes necessary to ditch, make every
effort to ditch near a surface vessel. If time permits,
an FAA facility should be able to get the position of
the nearest commercial or Coast Guard vessel from a
Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center.
5. After a crash landing, unless you have good
reason to believe that you will not be located by
search aircraft or ground teams, it is best to remain
with your aircraft and prepare means for signaling
6-3-3. Ditching Procedures
Single Swell (15 knot wind)
Double Swell (15 knot wind)
Double Swell (30 knot wind)
(50 knot wind)
a. A successful aircraft ditching is dependent on
three primary factors. In order of importance they are:
1. Sea conditions and wind.
2. Type of aircraft.
3. Skill and technique of pilot.
b. Common oceanographic terminology.
1. Sea. The condition of the surface that is the
result of both waves and swells.
2. Wave (or Chop). The condition of the
surface caused by the local winds.
3. Swell. The condition of the surface which
has been caused by a distance disturbance.
4. Swell Face. The side of the swell toward the
observer. The backside is the side away from the
observer. These definitions apply regardless of the
direction of swell movement.
5. Primary Swell. The swell system having the
greatest height from trough to crest.
6. Secondary Swells. Those swell systems of
less height than the primary swell.
7. Fetch. The distance the waves have been
driven by a wind blowing in a constant direction,
8. Swell Period. The time interval between the
passage of two successive crests at the same spot in
the water, measured in seconds.
9. Swell Velocity. The speed and direction of
the swell with relation to a fixed reference point,
measured in knots. There is little movement of water
in the horizontal direction. Swells move primarily in
a vertical motion, similar to the motion observed
when shaking out a carpet.
10. Swell Direction. The direction from which
a swell is moving. This direction is not necessarily the
result of the wind present at the scene. The swell may
be moving into or across the local wind. Swells, once
set in motion, tend to maintain their original direction
for as long as they continue in deep water, regardless
of changes in wind direction.
11. Swell Height. The height between crest
and trough, measured in feet. The vast majority of
ocean swells are lower than 12 to 15 feet, and swells
over 25 feet are not common at any spot on the
oceans. Successive swells may differ considerably in
c. In order to select a good heading when ditching
an aircraft, a basic evaluation of the sea is required.
Selection of a good ditching heading may well
minimize damage and could save your life. It can be
extremely dangerous to land into the wind without
regard to sea conditions; the swell system, or systems,
must be taken into consideration. Remember one
axiom- AVOID THE FACE OF A SWELL.
1. In ditching parallel to the swell, it makes little
difference whether touchdown is on the top of the
crest or in the trough. It is preferable, however, to land
on the top or back side of the swell, if possible. After
determining which heading (and its reciprocal) will
parallel the swell, select the heading with the most
into the wind component.
2. If only one swell system exists, the problem
is relatively simple-even with a high, fast system.
Unfortunately, most cases involve two or more swell
systems running in different directions. With more
than one system present, the sea presents a confused
appearance. One of the most difficult situations
occurs when two swell systems are at right angles.
For example, if one system is eight feet high, and the
other three feet, plan to land parallel to the primary
system, and on the down swell of the secondary
system. If both systems are of equal height, a
compromise may be advisable-select an intermediate
heading at 45 degrees down swell to both systems.
When landing down a secondary swell, attempt to
touch down on the back side, not on the face of the
3. If the swell system is formidable, it is
considered advisable, in landplanes, to accept more
crosswind in order to avoid landing directly into the
4. The secondary swell system is often from the
same direction as the wind. Here, the landing may be
made parallel to the primary system, with the wind
and secondary system at an angle. There is a choice
to two directions paralleling the primary system. One
direction is downwind and down the secondary swell,
and the other is into the wind and into the secondary
swell, the choice will depend on the velocity of the
wind versus the velocity and height of the secondary
d. The simplest method of estimating the wind
direction and velocity is to examine the windstreaks
on the water. These appear as long streaks up and
down wind. Some persons may have difficulty
determining wind direction after seeing the streaks on
the water. Whitecaps fall forward with the wind but
are overrun by the waves thus producing the illusion
that the foam is sliding backward. Knowing this, and
by observing the direction of the streaks, the wind
direction is easily determined. Wind velocity can be
estimated by noting the appearance of the whitecaps,
foam and wind streaks.
1. The behavior of the aircraft on making
contact with the water will vary within wide limits
according to the state of the sea. If landed parallel to
a single swell system, the behavior of the aircraft may
approximate that to be expected on a smooth sea. If
landed into a heavy swell or into a confused sea, the
deceleration forces may be extremely great-resulting
in breaking up of the aircraft. Within certain limits,
the pilot is able to minimize these forces by proper sea
evaluation and selection of ditching heading.
2. When on final approach the pilot should look
ahead and observe the surface of the sea. There may
be shadows and whitecaps-signs of large seas.
Shadows and whitecaps close together indicate short
and rough seas. Touchdown in these areas is to be
avoided. Select and touchdown in any area (only
about 500 feet is needed) where the shadows and
whitecaps are not so numerous.
3. Touchdown should be at the lowest speed and
rate of descent which permit safe handling and
optimum nose up attitude on impact. Once first
impact has been made, there is often little the pilot can
do to control a landplane.
e. Once preditching preparations are completed,
the pilot should turn to the ditching heading and
commence let-down. The aircraft should be flown
low over the water, and slowed down until ten knots
or so above stall. At this point, additional power
should be used to overcome the increased drag caused
by the nose up attitude. When a smooth stretch of
water appears ahead, cut power, and touchdown at the
best recommended speed as fully stalled as possible.
By cutting power when approaching a relatively
smooth area, the pilot will prevent overshooting and
will touchdown with less chance of planing off into
a second uncontrolled landing. Most experienced
seaplane pilots prefer to make contact with the water
in a semi-stalled attitude, cutting power as the tail
makes contact. This technique eliminates the chance
of misjudging altitude with a resultant heavy drop in
a fully stalled condition. Care must be taken not to
drop the aircraft from too high altitude or to balloon
due to excessive speed. The altitude above water
depends on the aircraft. Over glassy smooth water, or
at night without sufficient light, it is very easy, for
even the most experienced pilots to misjudge altitude
by 50 feet or more. Under such conditions, carry
enough power to maintain nine to twelve degrees
nose up attitude, and 10 to 20 percent over stalling
speed until contact is made with the water. The proper
use of power on the approach is of great importance.
If power is available on one side only, a little power
should be used to flatten the approach; however, the
engine should not be used to such an extent that the
aircraft cannot be turned against the good engines
right down to the stall with a margin of rudder
movement available. When near the stall, sudden
application of excessive unbalanced power may
result in loss of directional control. If power is
available on one side only, a slightly higher than
normal glide approach speed should be used. This
will ensure good control and some margin of speed
after leveling off without excessive use of power. The
use of power in ditching is so important that when it
is certain that the coast cannot be reached, the pilot
should, if possible, ditch before fuel is exhausted. The
use of power in a night or instrument ditching is far
more essential than under daylight contact
1. If no power is available, a greater than normal
approach speed should be used down to the flare-out.
This speed margin will allow the glide to be broken
early and more gradually, thereby giving the pilot
time and distance to feel for the surface - decreasing
the possibility of stalling high or flying into the water.
When landing parallel to a swell system, little
difference is noted between landing on top of a crest
or in the trough. If the wings of aircraft are trimmed
to the surface of the sea rather than the horizon, there
is little need to worry about a wing hitting a swell
crest. The actual slope of a swell is very gradual. If
forced to land into a swell, touchdown should be
made just after passage of the crest. If contact is made
on the face of the swell, the aircraft may be swamped
or thrown violently into the air, dropping heavily into
the next swell. If control surfaces remain intact, the
pilot should attempt to maintain the proper nose
above the horizon attitude by rapid and positive use
of the controls.
f. After Touchdown. In most cases drift, caused
by crosswind can be ignored; the forces acting on the
aircraft after touchdown are of such magnitude that
drift will be only a secondary consideration. If the
aircraft is under good control, the “crab” may be
kicked out with rudder just prior to touchdown. This
is more important with high wing aircraft, for they are
laterally unstable on the water in a crosswind and may
roll to the side in ditching.
This information has been extracted from Appendix H of the “National
Search and Rescue Manual.”
6-3-4. Special Emergency (Air Piracy)
a. A special emergency is a condition of air piracy,
or other hostile act by a person(s) aboard an aircraft,
which threatens the safety of the aircraft or its
b. The pilot of an aircraft reporting a special
emergency condition should:
1. If circumstances permit, apply distress or
urgency radio-telephony procedures. Include the
details of the special emergency.
AIM, Distress and Urgency Communications, Paragraph 6-3-1.
2. If circumstances do not permit the use of
prescribed distress or urgency procedures, transmit:
(a) On the air/ground frequency in use at the
(b) As many as possible of the following
elements spoken distinctly and in the following order:
(1) Name of the station addressed (time and
(2) The identification of the aircraft and
(3) The nature of the special emergency
condition and pilot intentions (circumstances
(4) If unable to provide this information,
use code words and/or transponder as follows:
TRANSPONDER SEVEN FIVE ZERO ZERO
I am being hijacked/forced to a new destination
Mode 3/A, Code 7500
Code 7500 will never be assigned by ATC without prior
notification from the pilot that the aircraft is being
subjected to unlawful interference. The pilot should refuse
the assignment of Code 7500 in any other situation and
inform the controller accordingly. Code 7500 will trigger
the special emergency indicator in all radar ATC facilities.
c. Air traffic controllers will acknowledge and
confirm receipt of transponder Code 7500 by asking
the pilot to verify it. If the aircraft is not being
subjected to unlawful interference, the pilot should
respond to the query by broadcasting in the clear that
the aircraft is not being subjected to unlawful
interference. Upon receipt of this information, the
controller will request the pilot to verify the code
selection depicted in the code selector windows in the
transponder control panel and change the code to the
appropriate setting. If the pilot replies in the
affirmative or does not reply, the controller will not
ask further questions but will flight follow, respond to
pilot requests and notify appropriate authorities.
d. If it is possible to do so without jeopardizing the
safety of the flight, the pilot of a hijacked passenger
aircraft, after departing from the cleared routing over
which the aircraft was operating, will attempt to do
one or more of the following things, insofar as
circumstances may permit:
1. Maintain a true airspeed of no more than
400 knots, and preferably an altitude of between
10,000 and 25,000 feet.
2. Fly a course toward the destination which the
hijacker has announced.
e. If these procedures result in either radio contact
or air intercept, the pilot will attempt to comply with
any instructions received which may direct the
aircraft to an appropriate landing field or alter the
aircraft's flight path off its current course, away from
6-3-5. Fuel Dumping
a. Should it become necessary to dump fuel, the
pilot should immediately advise ATC. Upon receipt
of information that an aircraft will dump fuel, ATC
will broadcast or cause to be broadcast immediately
and every 3 minutes thereafter the following on
appropriate ATC and FSS radio frequencies:
Attention all aircraft - fuel dumping in progress over -
(location) at (altitude) by (type aircraft) (flight direction).
b. Upon receipt of such a broadcast, pilots of
aircraft affected, which are not on IFR flight plans or
special VFR clearances, should clear the area
specified in the advisory. Aircraft on IFR flight plans
or special VFR clearances will be provided specific
separation by ATC. At the termination of the fuel
dumping operation, pilots should advise ATC. Upon
receipt of such information, ATC will issue, on the
appropriate frequencies, the following:
ATTENTION ALL AIRCRAFT - FUEL DUMPING BY -
(type aircraft) - TERMINATED.