Previously we interviewed Captain Ken Hoke to learn how pilots train for and manage in-flight emergencies. Today, on the International Day of the Air Traffic Controller, we turn to a controller for his perspective on emergency situations. The controller we spoke with works at an Air Route Traffic Control Center in the United States, controlling aircraft during their middle phase of flight. His answers to our questions may be slightly different than the answers of a tower or approach controller, but they should provide some general guidelines for how ATC deal with emergencies.
When a flight declares an emergency, how does an air traffic controller respond and how is it different from a normal flight?
It’s very dependent on the type of emergency. A medical emergency with a sick passenger aboard might just prompt a few vectors and phone calls to the sectors that the aircraft will be entering whereas an aircraft with an engine or hydraulic failure will require much more coordination and concentration.
Are all Emergency declarations treated the same by ATC?
In a word yes. It’s not very often you get a heads-up on an emergency aircraft so when a pilot keys up and says, “Center, N123 is declaring an emergency,” it instantly gets your attention and complete focus. As far as actual treatment, no. No two emergencies are the same. The regulations governing ATC communications in the US say to gather enough information to handle the emergency intelligently. As a minimum the regulations recommend getting the aircraft ID, type, nature of the emergency, pilot’s intentions, fuel remaining, and number of people on board. The biggest piece of information is usually the pilot’s intention. Whatever the pilot wants to do, we make it happen. If the pilot needs to turn around and go back to a major airport in the middle of a departure rush, we make it happen. There are times a pilot will accept being vectored into the line of arrivals that already exists as well. That doesn’t mean we’re going to delay him any longer than necessary, but the arrival controllers will make a hole for him fit into.
Does one controller stay with the aircraft the entire time or does the aircraft get passed to different controllers?
Usually no. In the enroute environment, we are usually afforded the luxury of being able to have a pilot change to the frequency of the airspace that the aircraft is flying in. There are a few exceptions to this: An aircraft with smoke in the cockpit might not be able to accept a radio change, because they simply might not be able to see the controls very well. A single piloted military aircraft might not accept a frequency change during an emergency because his/her hands are already full with having to deal with the emergency. With commercial and GA aircraft we usually ask, “can you accept a frequency change?”. During a medical emergency, there’s usually nothing wrong with the aircraft and the pilot can fly and operate the aircraft as they normally would.
What’s the biggest challenge in clearing airspace around an aircraft with an emergency?
This is a very situational question. Not many emergencies will require airspace to be “cleared” at all. If an aircraft is already in a line of arrivals and declares an emergency, there’s might not be much airspace to clear in front of him. The aircraft behind them might be assigned a different runway in case the emergency aircraft cannot clear the runway they landed on. Only one time I can recall having to vector more than one non-emergency aircraft for an inbound emergency. Years ago, a United Airlines Airbus A320 was inbound with an urgent medical emergency from the east, flying directly into an eastbound departure rush. I and the other departure controllers just issued small vectors, either left or right, to make sure the United A320 descended unimpeded. All total, maybe 8 to 10 aircraft got small vectors.
What is the significance of “Squawking 7700”?
Squawking 7700 will get the attention of EVERYONE. Even if you’re flying in approach control airspace, or even uncontrolled airspace, squawking 7700 will force your radar target onto every sector within the ARTCC you are flying. A center controller might ask an approach controller if he’s talking to the emergency code at such-and-such location. Within the en route environment, aircraft will usually not squawk 7700 unless instructed to do so. If there’s a radio failure associated with an emergency, the aircraft might alternately squawk 7600 (no radio) and 7700 (emergency). This alerts ATC that the aircraft is declaring an emergency and does not have an operable radio.
What type of training do controllers receive for emergency situations?
Trainees usually receive training on how to handle an emergency within our radar simulation lab. They are instructed on how to gather information from the pilot and how to respond. There are also many other behind-the-scenes procedures that happen when an emergency is declared that the controller initiates with his/her supervisor as well. Nothing can prepare you for your first actual emergency. I still remember my first emergency while operating a mobile (Army) ATC Tower in Germany. Experience, both time and lessons learned, are the best ways to “train” for an emergency. That being said, controllers are never “alone” in dealing with an emergency. The first thing we do when we hear the pilot declare an emergency is to inform the supervisor, which sometimes just involves turning your head and simply saying, “Hey boss, I’ve got an emergency”. Doing so not only gets his/her attention, but the controllers around you as well, they’ll actively look to see how they can help you out (for example: moving airplanes out of your airspace).
What’s the one thing you would want passengers or people tracking a flight to know about aircraft emergencies?
Don’t assume the the aircraft has, or is, suffering a catastrophic failure of some kind. Get the facts before issuing a “Breaking News” headline on social media.