Pilot in Command

Aviation is the only discipline I know that provides a rule for when and how to break its own rules…and gives the pilot in command the authority to do it.

FAR 91.3

(b) In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency.

Over the years I’ve discussed this exception to the rule with many pilots. They say their reluctance to declare an emergency comes from the next paragraph, which states you need to be prepared to explain your decisions:

(c) Each pilot in command who deviates from a rule under paragraph (b) of this section shall, upon the request of the Administrator, send a written report of that deviation to the Administrator.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve declared an emergency, but I can tell you that I have never been asked to send a written report. That’s not to say they couldn’t ask for one but, apparently they don’t like paperwork anymore than I do.

Another reason pilots say they are reluctant to declare an emergency is the idea of all the commotion at the airport upon landing—what with all the fire trucks and emergency response vehicles. I can tell you that the fire and rescue crews are eager to have something to do. They spend a great amount of time training to do their jobs and then sit around the station waiting for an opportunity to use that training, even if it is to respond to an uneventful landing. On the other hand, wouldn’t you really rather have them there waiting for you in case they are needed?

I was the test engineer on a flight in a modified Beech D-18, and we thought we had a fire on the right engine. The pilot shut down the engine, we declared an emergency, and the tower scrambled the fire trucks and rescue crews. Turned out to be a false alarm—there was no fire. But, nobody was upset, everyone went home happy, and no report was requested.

Sometimes it seems that pilots really don’t comprehend the magnitude of their authority once they declare an emergency. At that point, you tell ATC what you need and what you’re going to do, and it’s their job to help you get it done. Any runway you want is yours…including Camp Pendleton or Miramar. The military understands the meaning of an aircraft in distress, and they will sort out the administrative details of landing on a military base after you are safely on the ground.

In February of 2007, an American Airlines flight inbound to Dallas-Ft. Worth declared an emergency for low fuel and told the tower they wanted to land opposite direction of the current traffic. The tower refused and sequenced the flight with the other landing traffic rather than disrupt the traffic flow. Fortunately, this emergency was uneventful, but if it had become the anticipated emergency, it would have interrupted much more than the flow of landing traffic! Two things went wrong here: (1) the tower controllers did not respond properly, and (2) the pilot in command did not take control of the situation and exercise his authority to do what he felt needed to be done. The tower controllers were disciplined and retrained, and I imagine the pilot got some advice as well.

As a young wingman flying F-4s, I had to declare an emergency for some battle damage. The tower personnel were trying to help but got pretty excited and were tying up the radio frequency. Finally, my flight leader simply told tower to maintain radio silence until I was on the ground. Everything went well after that. Another time, I was a flight instructor in the back seat of an F-4, we were doing an emergency fuel diversion because our destination, and the designated alternate went below minimums. I had to declare an emergency because we did not have prior permission to enter French airspace. En-route to the emergency divert base in Germany, I was told the airfield and tower were closed because all the pilots and tower controllers were in a meeting. I told the en-route controller I really didn’t care if I got a clearance to land, I was going to use the runway regardless.

As pilots we are conditioned: ATC controls us, and we follow their directions. It’s just as hard for them as it is for us to reverse roles; but as pilot in command, that’s exactly what we must do. We must know when (and have the confidence) to make that call.


About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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