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“MAYDAY” and “PAN-PAN” - words that passengers wouldn’t want to hear in the air

After getting acquainted with the aviation alphabet, that is, some readers have only slightly refreshed their knowledge of the aviation alphabet, in this #AVgeek article we will write about two very familiar words from aviation jargon. Those two words are "MAYDAY" and "PAN-PAN".

Call that you don't want to hear from your captain! Photo: TIMOPH/GETTY IMAGES

If you have just joined or skipped our #AVgeek article on the subject of aviation alphabet, feel free to open it on the link below.

Aviation Alphabet: From Alpha to Zulu

We believe that "MAYDAY" and "PAN-PAN" are not words you would like to hear as a passenger on a plane whose crew is just saying them. The reason for this is that both of these words are used in emergency situations when help is needed, i.e. in case there is a danger to the life of the passenger or crew. Although used in seemingly similar situations, there is a significant difference in the degree of danger when a particular word is used. Also, it is important to note that in the case of using these words, they are not pronounced only once separately but it is correct to say the appropriate word three times. So, "MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY", or "PAN-PAN PAN-PAN PAN-PAN".


The need to introduce a well-known word that will have wide application and that will be used as a call for help arose after communication via the Morse code became obsolete. So, it was necessary to come up with a word that will be universally used in aviation in case of danger, or emergency. Frederick Mockford, who worked as an air traffic controller at Croyton Airport in London, was given the task of coining the word. Since Frederick Mockford worked primarily with British and French pilots that were flying between London and Paris, he noticed that French pilots used the word "M'aidez" which literally means "Help me" in English. Of course, it sounded like "May Day" to him, and it seemed different enough from all the other words commonly used in the aviation world. Therefore, Mockford introduced the word "MAYDAY" at the 1927 International Radiotelegraphy Convention in Washington. At the said convention, the word "MAYDAY" was accepted as an official call for assistance to be used for the highest degree of danger.

Therefore, "MAYDAY" is used in situations of the highest degree of danger, i.e. when there is an imminent threat to the lives of crew members or passengers. This type of danger can be posed by situations such as loss of control, or probable loss of control of the aircraft due to various causes. Some of the causes of loss of control of an aircraft may be the inability of the pilot to fly, aircraft engine failure, malfunction, or failure of the aircraft’s control functions. Also, the reason for using this call for help may be the outbreak of fire in the passenger or pilot cabin.

On the link below you can see what the call "MAYDAY" looks like in reality.


In order to be able to distinguish different degrees of danger during communication, the word "PAN-PAN" was introduced. This call for help also draws its roots from the French language from the word "Panne", which would literally mean "Breakdown". Unlike the "MAYDAY" call used in case of imminent danger to life, "PAN-PAN" is used as a call for help in case of an emergency that does not pose an immediate and imminent threat to life, but requires assistance from ground staff. Situations where this call for help could be used are for example in case the aircraft is lost, also in case of failure of the aircraft for rehabilitation require a change of the planned route, as well as in other cases when landing is necessary to get help from other services. Although not the highest level of danger, PAN-PAN should be seen as a serious call for immediate help.

An example of using the "PAN-PAN" call for help is provided at the following link.

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