get your pilot license

I Do Declare

The silence was deafening.

On April 26, 2022, at approximately 11:12 a.m. ET, while in level VFR flight at 2,000 agl and cruising over the nondescript Ohio landscape, 2,000-hour-plus pilot Marc Epner experienced the unthinkable in his Cirrus SR22, N973SD—a total engine failure.

Cue the sweaty palms.

What makes this event unique is the fact that the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System, affectionately referred to as CAPS, was intentionally, albeit not consciously, not activated as Epner recalls. “The brain told me what to do,” he says. “I knew exactly what to do and reacted accordingly.” This included establishing the best glide speed, picking out a suitable landing area, a restart attempt, sending out a Mayday call on Guard—121.5—and successfully landing the airplane. Elapsed time from engine failure to safe landing: 1 minute, 36 seconds.

While the timing of the event had a positive outcome—10 minutes later and the failure would have occurred over a populated Cleveland, which would likely have necessitated the need to activate the CAPS with unknown results—Epner never doubted the need to declare an emergency to ATC. In fact, it can be said that if you are questioning whether you must declare an emergency, in all likelihood, you should. Once the “startle effect” at the outset of the engine failure subsided, previous scenario training kicked in with laser focus, allowing for Epner’s successful landing. (For more information on the startle effect, see the article “Scrubbing the Flight” in the September 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot)

AdobeStock 282700008 batuhan toker
[Photo: Adobe Stock]

The same cannot be said of an accident that might have been prevented if an emergency had been declared on September 15, 2017. The noninstrument-rated pilot, his wife, and two children took off from Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport (KFNL), now known as Northern Colorado Regional Airport, en route to Canyonlands Regional Airport (KCNY) in Moab, Utah. They found themselves in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) at night over mountainous terrain in a Cirrus SR22. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that “…the flight was likely operating in [IMC] at the time of the accident, [which] included light to moderate icing conditions. The airplane likely encountered intermittent IMC beginning about 30 minutes after takeoff and continued into an area of solid IMC about three minutes before the accident occurred.”


In this case, the pilot was already on flight following and talking to ATC. He was attempting to circumnavigate mountainous terrain at night in bad weather. He was below the minimum en-route altitude (MEA) for that area and, for whatever reason, did not declare an emergency with ATC. Perhaps he believed he could salvage a bad situation. Maybe he was relying on the advanced technology of the glass panel to protect him. Or maybe he was concerned he would get into trouble after the fact with the FAA. Sadly, we will never really know his reasoning or motivation to forgo a Mayday call. What we do know, according to the NTSB final report, is the aircraft struck terrain with the airframe and engine showing severe fragmentation consistent with a high-energy impact likely caused by the pilot experiencing a loss of control because of spatial disorientation, which resulted in a subsequent descent into terrain with fatal results. 

Pilots are generally an intelligent breed. So why are some pilots reluctant to declare an emergency? Even when they know in the back of their pilot brain that such a declaration can bring valuable resources to the forefront while improving the chance of surviving the crisis, many still refuse to send out that Mayday call.

N973SD Cowl
[Photo: NTSB]

According to former NTSB senior investigator Greg Feith, there should be no ambiguity in declaring an emergency when a critical in-flight emergency occurs. The long-standing myth that sending out a Mayday call and declaring an emergency will result in copious amounts of paperwork for a pilot is simply untrue. Sure, there may be some documents to complete, but it’s not anything that should prevent a pilot in distress from taking such action.

Feith says the benefit of an emergency declaration—including having a controller one-on-one to assist, clearing the frequency and airspace as required, priority handling, and having another set of eyes available to provide critical information—should outweigh any concern of increased paperwork while increasing the chance of a good outcome.


One of the other common myths and concerns of pilots, according to Feith, is the FAA will use the emergency to impose a fine resulting from conditions that occurred leading up to it. “The FSDO (Flight Standards District Office) is not out to ‘get’ anyone,” Feith says. “While they must enforce the rules, there should be no concern if the pilot has done what the FAR tells them to do, and you have demonstrated good ADM (aeronautical decision making).” This includes proper preflight planning and making appropriate decisions as the emergency unfolds. It is not worth risking lives because of a propagating myth.

And it’s not just the FAA and NTSB that encourage a pilot in distress to ask for help from ATC early in an emergency. Rocky Sparks, a U.S. Air Force controller at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, says that while he was working an otherwise normal shift, a Cirrus pilot advised him of an engine failure while at 7,500 feet msl. This quickly set a series of events in motion, including clearing the airspace and providing heading and distance information to the nearest airport (which, in this case, was unattainable). In addition, Sparks notified the appropriate emergency responders of the pending forced landing.

By declaring the emergency early, the Cirrus pilot had the benefit of a controller to keep everyone informed of the situation as it unfolded, including the aircraft’s trajectory. In this case, the pilot chose to deploy the Cirrus CAPS when a safe landing at an airport or field could not be assured. A safe descent under the canopy ensued and, with the assistance of ATC, ground-based emergency responders arrived within minutes of the disabled aircraft’s touchdown.

N973SD Field
[Photo: NTSB]

But what if the pilot does not decide to declare an emergency when it seems the situation would dictate that one is unfolding? According to Feith, ATC can declare an emergency on the pilot’s behalf. If the controller senses it is life-threatening, it can and will be handled as an emergency.


However, in some cases, there is a gray area, and the controller is waiting for the pilot to confirm the emergency. According to multiple sources, the controller will attempt to determine the extent of a possible emergency by asking the pilot, “What are your intentions?” At that point, it is up to the pilot to state they are declaring an emergency and need assistance. Those magic words will allow full ATC resources to be available to the aircraft in trouble.

An example of where this could have changed the outcome of an accident occurred on January 25, 1990. The commercial airline flight, Avianca 052 from Bogotá, Colombia, to New York, tragically ended when the aircraft ran out of fuel and crashed into a hillside in the village of Cove Neck, New York, on the north shore of Long Island. Eight of the nine crewmembers and 65 of the 149 passengers on board were killed.

The NTSB determined the crash occurred because of the “flight crew failing to properly declare a fuel emergency.” The ambiguity of the pilot stating he was “fuel critical” instead of declaring a fuel emergency resulted in aircraft sequencing that was not prioritized the way it would have been had an emergency been declared. This crash directly resulted in positive changes in how Part 121 carriers manage and report fuel-critical emergencies.

With all the resources available to pilots when they are presented with an in-flight emergency, it is incumbent on the entire pilot community to remember that declaring an emergency to improve the chances of a good outcome and surviving the crisis should take precedence over any concerns about doing so. We are all taught to mitigate risk in the cockpit. According to the statistics and experts, declaring an emergency early will reduce risk and improve the odds of living to tell about an in-flight crisis during that next hanger flying session. Sweaty palms optional.


Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Plane & Pilot magazine. 

Add a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

get your pilot license
Optimized by Optimole