Air traffic controllers can play a key role in assisting aircraft in distress inside controlled airspace and where there is radar coverage. Many light aircraft operate outside of controlled airspace and radar coverage so depending on the location of the incident, Airservices may not have information or be the first-response agency in the event of an accident.

In-flight emergencies

An emergency is declared when an aircraft is experiencing problems and there is a reasonable certainty of a threat to the safety of the aircraft or its passengers, as well as where emergency assistance is required.

Airservices aviation rescue fire fighters (ARFF) will be alerted but their presence may be a precautionary measure and does not necessarily indicate an actual emergency.

In the event of an in-flight emergency, pilots call ‘mayday’ or ‘pan’ to air traffic control to alert controllers to the severity of the incident. As with normal operations, the pilot remains in command of his aircraft at all times and is responsible for determining the safest course of action, such as where and when to land.

‘mayday’ call indicates an aircraft is in grave and imminent danger and requires immediate assistance. Controllers immediately alert ARFF services if available, as well as local emergency services, with details on the incident to enable them to respond appropriately and provide information and assistance to pilots throughout the emergency.

‘pan’ call is used to describe a less urgent situation but one that still requires attention from air traffic control. In this case, controllers provide information and assistance to pilots as well as informing ARFF or local emergency services as necessary. Examples of ‘pan’ situations include a passenger medical emergency or instrument malfunction.

priority landing occurs when controllers re-schedule aircraft departures and arrivals to allow an aircraft that might have a problem to land as soon as possible. Medical emergencies may lead to priority landings but priority landings are not ‘emergency landings’ or evidence of any actual problem with an aircraft.

Search and rescue

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) is responsible for all search and rescue coordination in Australia. AMSA’s Rescue Coordination Centre in Canberra will coordinate search and rescue efforts on receiving a distress signal or notification of an aircraft accident, generally with the assistance of local emergency services, .

Airservices also advises AMSA when pilots fail to cancel their search and rescue time (SARTIME). Pilots lodge a SARTIME based on the expected duration of their flight before they take-off. Pilots must cancel their SARTIME on landing but if a SARTIME expires, Airservices attempts to contact the pilot. The information is passed to AMSA for further investigation after 15 minutes if the pilot cannot be reached.

Accident investigation

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) is the authority charged with investigating aircraft incidents. Airservices works cooperatively with the ATSB where investigations relate to our operations.