My First Emergency... Sort
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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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