Staying Out of the Flying Pan
Possible Assistance Needed: Preventing Pan-Pan Problems
By Larry Fields, FAA (Acting) Flight Standards Service Executive Director
As pilots, we’re all familiar with the sheer gravity and undivided attention a “mayday” emergency distress message commands when uttered on the airwaves. Hopefully you never have or never will need to use it. However, it is an important tool for pilots to know and not be afraid to use if the situation warrants. The same can be said of a lesser-known distress signal and, as one popular aviation YouTuber puts it, mayday’s little brother: pan-pan.
As with mayday (or maidez), pan-pan is of French origin and is derived from the word panne, which means a breakdown or failure (… not a delicious pastry!) Pan also spawned a few interesting backronyms, Pay Attention Now and Possible Assistance Needed (used on the cover), to help distinguish it from mayday. Unlike mayday, which is used to describe a life-threatening emergency, pan-pan is meant to communicate an urgent situation that for the moment is controllable, but could easily become worse.
For example, if you were to become lost and unable to orient yourself; had an engine failure on a multi-engine aircraft; or experienced a system or structural failure that requires your attention and may be causing a change in flightpath, declaring pan-pan over the radio would be appropriate. On the other hand, an onboard fire or loss of control would warrant use of the higher priority mayday signal.
The Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) contains a more in-depth description of distress and urgency procedures in chapter 6, section 3.
It states that initial communication from an aircraft in distress, and any subsequent transmissions, should begin with either mayday or pan-pan — depending on which is warranted — and be repeated three times (e.g., “Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan, Cessna 12345 …”). It also states that a pan-pan call takes priority over all other radio calls, except mayday, and alerts all other pilots and controllers not to interfere unless there is no response from the receiving station, at which point anyone can offer assistance. Sometimes ATC will assign a discrete frequency that the aircraft in distress can use without worry of interference.
Pan-pan is meant to communicate an urgent situation that for the moment is controllable, but could easily become worse.
The AIM also points out some suggested immediate actions an aircraft in distress should take to improve their chances of obtaining ATC assistance (e.g., climb for improved communications) and provides a list of elements that should be conveyed to ATC when making a distress call. The important takeaway here is that a pan-pan call can get you the assistance you need, especially during task-saturated single pilot operations. This assistance could come in the form of vectors back to your departure or a nearby airport, clearing other aircraft from your flightpath, and providing priority handling on the frequency, allowing you to more carefully focus on the problem at hand.
Let’s face it: an infinite array of abnormalities can occur on a flight, and many may not have any established procedures to follow. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prepare for each and every issue that could arise. However, awareness of particular situations and how they could impact your flight could go a long way in helping you successfully and safely navigate your way out of them.
That’s why we chose to focus this issue on some of these more urgent aeronautical situations that may require a unique or specific response to handle appropriately. We look at some common exhaust system issues, an extremely deadly and insidious danger, how to handle wildlife or laser strikes, as well as how to recognize the onset of hypoxia and ensure safety during higher altitude operations.
We hope reading about some of these urgent situations will help give you an edge if you’re ever faced with one. Just know that help is always just a pan-pan call away.
FAA Safety Briefing: Preventing Pan-Pan Problems
Magazine Feature Articles
Difficult and Exhausting
How a “Simple” Thing Like an Exhaust System Can Create Deadly Difficulties
Going to the Birds to Prevent Hazardous Strikes
Promising research suggests UV lights mounted on helicopters and planes drive birds away from aircraft … and danger.
Hitting Home Runs with First Responder Training Courses
FAA Training Helps First Responders Safely Assess an Aviation Accident Site
SODA — It’s Not Just a Fizzy Drink
Aeromedical Advisory: a checkup on all things aeromedical