During an emergency requiring immediate action the pilot in command may deviate from any aviation rule to the extend required to meet that emergency. The law is quite clear on that. And more: he is not alone in this situation, there are a number of services available to the pilot that may be used to help counter any problems during the flight.
If during an emergency the pilot deviates from an ATC clearance the PIC must notify ATC as soon as possible and obtain an amended clearance. This is also obvious: deal with the emergency first then tell them what happened and be prepared to submit a report if requested.
The pilot in command is the final authority and directly responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft. The regulations are clear on that too. So in an emergency the crew and passengers must obey the PIC, basically he is the boss.
An emergency is either a distress or urgency condition needing action and pilots should not hesitate to declare an emergency when confronted with such a situation. A good example is running low on fuel, e.g. less than one hour on board. This is called an urgency situation. A distress situation follows when the engine really quits and a landing is unavoidable.
Pilots should not hesitate to immediately request assistance in those situations. In this section we take a look on what services are available to the PIC should any emergency ever arise.
The aviation community has developed a number of technologies to help an aircraft in an emergency situation. Radar services, transponders, ELT, direction finding equipment, emergency locators and intercept and escort services. And last but not least there are search and rescue services equipped with the right tools.
VFR aircraft in difficulty can request radar assistance and navigation services from ATC when the pilot is able to communicate with them. But keep in mind that you need to remain VFR, a clearance which would take you into clouds should be declined and ATC notified. This radar service is in effect navigational assistance, you will still remain responsible as the PIC.
Most VFR pilots did not have enough training to be able to fly safely on instruments. It is therefore wise to keep the controller advised about the weather conditions you currently are experiencing to avoid IFR conditions.
If at all possible select a course of action that will allow you to perform a safe landing in VFR conditions. Should you have a current IFR rating and the aircraft is also IFR equipped then you can proceed under IFR conditions. If not, consider declaring a distress situation if the circumstances do not allow a safe flight.
When the pilot declares a distress or emergency situation the transponder should be set to mode A/3 code 7700, mode 3/C altitude and if so equipped: on Mode S and contact the nearest ATC facility. Radar installations will trigger an alarm when they detect code 7700, or any other special designated transponder code.
TIP: Be careful not to inadvertently select any of these codes when changing your transponder to another code. Make sure to set it to standby first, set the new code and only then put it back to ALT.
Follow the next link to learn more about using and setting codes and operating aircraft transponders in general in our homebuilt section.
Direction finding (DF) equipment has long been used to help pilots, locate lost aircraft and guide them to VFR weather. The only requirement is that the airport has direction finding equipment, basically a special antenna and radio receiver with an indicator.
For VFR pilots it is helpful to practice these DF steers, make sure to do that in VFR conditions and possibly with an instructor on board. Today, where every pilot owns mobile devices with sophisticated navigation software, this will not happen anymore.
These devices emit a downward sweep on designated frequencies and are monitored by the Cospass-Sarsat satellite system. They can be manually activated but have a crash detector (G-force switch). When activated they can transmit aircraft data, position and such. More on this in our range of articles on aircraft distress beacons, see link below.