My First Emergency... Sort Of

By Jason Catanzariti, CFII


“How many of you have ever declared an emergency?” The question was directed at an audience of pilots during an aviation safety seminar some years ago. About a dozen hands went up. “Keep your hand up if you were asked to submit any paperwork afterward.” Every hand went down. Much nodding and murmuring ensued. “Don’t hesitate to declare an emergency,” the speaker concluded.

That made an impression on me, and factored into my thinking during the first mayday situation I’ve encountered. Although I was only peripherally involved, and it wasn’t a big deal in the end, I did use the word “emergency” on a live Air Traffic Control (ATC) frequency for the first time.

It was my third flight of the day, but the first with my student Lauren. It was just two days after her high school graduation, and she told me she eventually hoped to fly police helicopters. Well, one step at a time. So after a thorough pre-flight inspection we took off to learn the basics in our flight school’s Piper Warrior.

After about 45-minutes of straight and level, turns, climbs and descents Lauren had had enough, and we headed back to Cherry Ridge Airport. She looked a little tired, and I wondered if I had worked her a bit too hard on our first flight. But I asked her to stay with me on the controls anyway in order to see what a landing felt like. Just as we were entering the downwind leg there was a radio call on the common air traffic frequency. “Cherry Ridge… Amphibian over the lake… Ah, we have a fuel emergency.”

I answered, “Aircraft over the lake, what’s the problem sir?”

“My engine is sputtering every time I put the throttle up.”

I raised my eyebrows at Lauren, who looked as if someone had abruptly woken her from a peaceful nap, then peeled out of the pattern and headed for nearby Lake Wallenpaupack. “Ok, just keep flying the airplane. What are you thinking of doing?”

“Well, I see an airport south of the lake here...”

I had a feeling I knew what he was thinking, and I didn’t like the idea. “OK, that’s probably Mountain Bay airport you’re looking at. That’s a 2000-foot strip. If you’re in an amphibious airplane, I’d suggest you land it on the lake, sir.”

“Well I don’t know if I can get fuel once I’m down there. Maybe we could make Cherry Ridge. What’s that, about six miles?”

I said it was, but again suggested he just put it into the lake if he was running out of fuel. Then I added that I was coming to his position, that I was a CFI, and that I would do everything I could to help him. Finally, I told him that I would take care of the radio calls, while he should concentrate on flying the airplane.

While I was having this exchange I briefly debated with myself about whether this was an actual emergency. After all, he was in an amphibious airplane that was directly over a 13-mile wide lake. But the pilot was talking about a sputtering engine, and had used the word “emergency”. Also, I didn’t know if it was legal to land on Lake Wallenpaupack. But I do know that the pilot-in-command’s authority would allow him to do whatever was necessary to meet an emergency situation. And then there was the advice I heard at the safety meeting, which ultimately made the decision for me.

I tuned the radio to the local ATC frequency and keyed the mic. “Wilkes Barre approach, Warrior 1483X – I’m declaring an emergency for another aircraft.”

It felt strange to use the “E-word” for real. This also got a reaction from Lauren, whose eyes widened even further.

ATC responded quickly and I explained the situation. “There’s an amphibious aircraft over Lake Wallenpaupack, he says he’s low on fuel and his engine is sputtering. He’s thinking about putting it down on the lake. I’m talking to him on 122.8.”

The controller had me use the identification feature on my transponder to locate me on radar, and a moment later reported he had the other plane identified as well. I asked the controller if he wanted to speak to the mayday aircraft directly, but he replied that we should continue what we were doing. I said I would switch frequencies and report back in a moment.

Through all of this Lauren was looking startled, but then helped me search the sky for the other airplane. I flew fast but cautiously, keeping us away from where I thought he was so we didn’t become a collision hazard.

While I continued talking to the pilot, Lauren spotted the aircraft and pointed it out to me. I maneuvered to a position above and watched.

Meanwhile, I bounced back and forth between radio frequencies. The pilot, who I now addressed as “amphib”, was still having engine problems. I asked him to select the emergency code on his transponder and switch to the air-to-air radio frequency so we could communicate more easily. I quickly reported this to ATC before changing to the new radio frequency myself.

After a little more discussion of position, altitude and wind he committed to landing on the lake. I talked to him a bit as he descended and pointed out a few boats. Then I stayed quiet so as not to distract him. Lauren and I watched as he made a normal water landing. I keyed the mic: “That looked good from here – how are you doing?”

“We’re fine, no problem.”

I congratulated him on a safe landing, said goodbye and switched back to ATC while heading for Cherry Ridge. When I reported that the situation had ended well the controller confirmed and then asked me to call the tower after I landed. This brought me up short, as being asked to call ATC on the phone usually means you’re in trouble. When I asked if I had done something wrong, the controller assured me they just wanted to get some more information and thank me for my help.

By this time we were back in the Cherry Ridge traffic pattern, and I again offered to let Lauren participate in the landing. She waved a hand wearily, “No, thanks - it’s all yours.”

I narrated the landing procedure for her benefit anyway, taxied back to our hangar and shut down the engine. Lauren then climbed out of her seat and immediately laid down on the ramp next to the airplane, seemingly exhausted. I wondered if this incident had caused her to re-think her career aspirations.

When I called ATC on the phone they again thanked me for helping, and put me on with the controller I had been speaking with in the air. I asked if I had taken the proper action in declaring an emergency for another plane, and he assured me I had. No mention of a written report or other paperwork was mentioned.

Later in the day I learned of an interesting coincidence. The first person to reach the airplane on the lake was one of my former flight students. Jim got his license with me earlier this year, and happened to be on the lake with his family when the amphib landed. Thinking this was odd, he rode a jet ski out to offer assistance. The pilot explained what had happened, and mentioned he had been speaking with an instructor on the radio. Jim realized it was probably me.

Closure came the next day when I met the pilot. He thanked me for assisting, and said that not having to worry about the radio calls was helpful. The low fuel level had caused the engine to falter when the throttle was advanced to high RPM. And upon inspection of the airplane he also found a fuel line blockage that may have exacerbated the situation.

In the end, the situation had not been truly dire, although it would have been different for an airplane not capable of a water landing. But things were definitely heading south, and in aviation we talk about needing to break the “accident chain” before something else happens. By declaring an emergency more options were opened for the mayday aircraft, and search and rescue personnel were put on alert. If the situation had deteriorated further, they might have been needed. The pilot and I agreed, with hindsight, that the right call had been made.

I’ve always told my students about the hands going down at the safety seminar, and to not hesitate in declaring an emergency. Now I have first-hand experience to back up that advice. And Lauren was not scared off – she flew again the next day. Not sure if she still wants to fly for the police though...

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