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  • MAYDAY: it's something we've heard a thousand times in movies and TV, and hopefully, never

  • once in real life.

  • When a grizzled sea captain is being tossed around by a storm, when a pilot's plane

  • starts nosediving, or when an improbably attractive couple on a desert island, who have remained

  • [emphasis] improbably attractive after 1 month without hair styling products or showers,

  • find an abandoned radio transmitter: MAYDAY is the first thing to come out of their mouths.

  • But why do we say MAYDAY in an emergency?

  • When and how did this almost universal custom start?

  • Well, we were going to strand your favorite lab rat to find out, but decided the airfare

  • was too expensive.

  • So where does MAYDAY come from?

  • The word itself doesn't seem to imply danger.

  • What's more peaceful and beautiful than a gorgeous, sunny day in May?

  • If you didn't know that this word was a distress call, it would probably conjure up

  • images of springtime, flowers, and sunshine.

  • Well, the word originates from the French word m'aidez, which translates toHelp

  • Me!”.

  • It first started being used in England in 1923, when the majority of UK airline traffic

  • was over the English Channel between England and France.

  • Stories credit Frederick Stanley Mockford with coining the phrase in English, though

  • some sources are unable to verify if he was the first person to use the word.

  • Mockford was a senior radio officer in Croydon Airport in London.

  • He was supposedly asked to think of a word that would be easily understood by all pilots

  • and ground staff on both the French and English side of the channel in case of an emergency.

  • Up until that point, SOS had been a pretty standard distress signal for ships at sea.

  • However, ships at the time mostly communicated telegraphically.

  • In Morse code, SOS was an easy pattern to both type out and decipher - three dots, three

  • dashes, three dots again.

  • However, airlines communicated mostly via radio.

  • Pilots soon realized that saying SOS on the radio, especially the more primitive radio

  • communications that existed then, could easily be misunderstood.

  • Why?

  • Because as everyone who has spent hours on the phone with customer service endlessly

  • repeating “S as in Samknows, the letter “S” is easily confused for several other

  • letters.

  • Which is why a famous pop singer is probably listed in some telemarketing records asFam

  • Fmith”.

  • Pilots in distress couldn't really sit around repeating “S as in Samwhile their plane

  • was in danger of hurtling towards the ground, so a new word needed to be thought up.

  • That's when Mockford, the Croydon Airport radio officer, decided to go with the French

  • version m'aidez, or according to some sources, m'aider - the former is the imperative form

  • of the verb, but they both sound just about the same.

  • Naturally, the English-speaking radio officers bastardized it for English use intoMAYDAY!”.

  • In addition to their cuisine and wine, this marks one of just a few times the French culturally

  • won out over the English.

  • After Mockford came up with this call, it spread so far beyond England and became so

  • popular that the US formally adoptedMAYDAYas a radiotelegraph distress signal in 1927,

  • just four years later.

  • The formal article to adopt it was passed by the International Radiotelegraph Convention

  • in Washington.

  • Even a few years after its inception, the distress signal was being used by pilots as

  • far as Singapore.

  • Eventually, “MAYDAYwas made official by most international bodies in 1948.

  • So when should it be used?

  • Although it can be said in a variety of environments, it's most often associated with naval and

  • air communications.

  • On these naval and air vessels, most governing bodies indicate thatMAYDAYshould be

  • used almost exclusively in life-threatening emergencies.

  • Furthermore, even the way the word is said can help authorities understand what is happening.

  • That's right, there is a protocol to how this distress signal should be used.

  • When a pilot or captain feels there is an urgent, potentially fatal situation developing,

  • they usually get on the radio and yell outMAYDAYthree times.

  • The call ofMAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAYis issued to help ground control or operational

  • centers understand which ship or plane is the one in distress.

  • That's because if radio communications fail or are out of range on a vessel in peril,

  • and nearby ships or planes observe one of their colleagues in distress, they might relay

  • a MAYDAY message in order to inform authorities that another unit is in danger.

  • Otherwise, they might be responding, addressing, or confirming a nearby MAYDAY situation if

  • they are able to assist.

  • So simply hearing the wordMAYDAYcome through on the radio, said only once, isn't

  • an automatic sign that the ship or plane calling is also the one in trouble.

  • When one vessel sends a distress call on behalf of another ship, it's called a “MAYDAY

  • relay”, a somewhat cute phrase for a very real life or death emergency.

  • Depending on the vessel one is operating and the country in which it is being operated,

  • there are also specific instructions on what information to relay after a “MAYDAY

  • call.

  • The Federal Aviation Administration of the US, or FAA, usually encourages the following

  • format:

  • MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY: Name of station addressed; Aircraft call sign and type; Nature

  • of emergency; Weather; Pilot's intentions or requests; Present position and heading,

  • or if lost, last known position and heading; Altitude or flight level; fuel remaining in

  • minutes; number of people on board; any other needed information”.

  • Because of the severity of a MAYDAY call, making a false call is usually punishable

  • by a fine or even imprisonment in some countries.

  • In the US, the punishment is up to a $250,000 fine or six years in jail!

  • That might sound harsh, but consider the fact that when a ship or plane sends out this distress

  • call, all resources and attention will be directed towards assisting that vessel.

  • Which means officers might end up neglecting other vessels in any kind of danger, or be

  • unable to assist other vessels to the extent they could otherwise.

  • In addition to time and energy, costly resources will also be diverted towards assisting or

  • finding the vessel issuing a MAYDAY call.

  • All this adds up to a lot of wasted time, manpower, and money if the call turns out

  • to be a hoax.

  • Moreover, once a pilot has declared an extreme emergency, many airspace regulations such

  • as speed and clearance limits are rendered moot, and the pilot is authorized to do almost

  • anything he deems necessary to correct the situation, as long as it doesn't cause injury

  • or death to civilians on the ground.

  • Therefore, since theMAYDAYcall also gives pilots great latitude in their actions,

  • it is reserved only for the most urgent of situations.

  • So what if a pilot has an emergency, but not one necessarily threatening the lives of everyone

  • on board?

  • Well, for lower-order emergencies, such as a mechanical failure or medical problem on

  • board, or poor weather, getting lost, and low - but not dangerously low - fuel, the

  • pilot will issue a distress call ofpan-pan”.

  • We would not be able to do that with a straight face.

  • Of course, it's French as well, with panne meaningbreakdown”.

  • Anything that is not a, quote, “grave and imminent threat requiring immediate assistance”,

  • end quote, as indicated by most naval and airline handbooks, will get a “pan-pan

  • instead of a “MAYDAY”.

  • One last related distress protocol is that if theMAYDAYsituation is happening

  • on channels where other radio chatter and traffic are interfering, an order can be given

  • out to stop all other communication on the specific frequency until the emergency has

  • been handled - hopefully with a positive result.

  • To be clear, usually all other chatter and communication on a specific radio frequency

  • will cease once a “MAYDAYhas been declared without an additional order.

  • However, if there is any additional interference an order ofSeelonce MAYDAYwill be

  • given out”.

  • And yes, you guessed it, it is once again French.

  • Seelonceis the approximate French translation ofsilence”.

  • When this order is given, it means that the channel it is given on can only be used by

  • the vessel in distress and the authorities handling the call.

  • One of the reasons so many French words are used in emergency situations is because, outside

  • of French-speaking countries, they are easy to separate from the usual chatter that may

  • be occurring via radio.

  • So are these the only phrases pilots use in a crisis?

  • Well, not quite.

  • Some pilots will go with alternates, such asdeclaring an emergency”.

  • However, the International Civil Aviation Organization highly discourages using any

  • alternative distress signals, as they tend to cause confusion rather than help.

  • AsMAYDAYis currently the international standard for distress calls, using anything

  • other than those words can mess up authorities' responses.

  • Usually, authorities won't confuse the alternative distress call for long, but in a dire situation,

  • even a momentary delay can make the difference between life and death.

  • Also, if for whatever reason a “MAYDAYcan't be verbally given, a pilot or captain

  • has a few other options.

  • Every modern aircraft has a transponder which identifies the plane on radar.

  • The pilot will set a four figure code - known as a squawk code - given to them by the controller

  • to help identify their plane popping up on radar.

  • This four digit code will appear on screen right next to the aircraft trace.

  • If the pilot can't speak or radio communications go down, he can input a special squawk code

  • of 7700 to signal MAYDAY.

  • This code will trigger an alarm in the control room which notifies all controllers that the

  • aircraft is in serious trouble.

  • Let's say a pilot sends out this distress signal, ends up sorting everything out, and

  • the plane lands safely with all the crew and passengers alive and well.

  • What happens next?

  • Well, every time a “MAYDAYcall is issued, that usually means a ton of paperwork for

  • the person who issued the call.

  • If they survived, of course.

  • However, in more recent years, the FAA and other governing bodies have made allowances,

  • depending on the type of emergency, to ease this burden for pilots.

  • Probably because the threat of a mountain of paperwork might be enough to make some

  • pilots re-consider if their situation is reaaaaallly [emphasis] that much of an emergency after

  • all.

  • We've spoken a fair bit about officers making distress calls, but civilians can also make

  • MAYDAYcalls.

  • For example, a regular person on their private boat facing danger or lost at sea can ask

  • the Coast Guard for help via a “MAYDAYcall.

  • Unfortunately, some people have taken to usingMAYDAYcalls as pranks.

  • For example, a man in Rockland, Maine, issued a “MAYDAYdistress call on December 3,

  • 2020, to the local Coast Guard on a VHF-FM radio channel.

  • After they received the call, the Coast Guard started searching the area with a Maine Marine

  • Patrol vessel, helicopter, and Coast Guard vessel for five hours to locate the man they

  • assumed to be missing or in distress.

  • The man was eventually identified and the call discovered to be a hoax; because some

  • people are sociopaths in their free time.

  • In response, the US District Court of Portland, Maine, filed a criminal complaint against

  • him in January of 2021.

  • The Coast Guard addressed the court case by stating that hoaxMAYDAYcalls are not

  • only degrading for authorities, but detract from their ability to do their jobs and provide

  • assistance to others who may be in real trouble.

  • Unfortunately, the Coast Guard is particularly vulnerable to these hoaxes as the VHF radio

  • signals it uses to receive distress signals are nearly untraceable, making pranksters

  • hard to identify.

  • However, generally speaking the universal adoption of theMAYDAYsignal has been

  • an incredible and necessary precaution to help aircraft, sailing vessels, and authorities

  • around the world immediately declare and understand emergency situations as well as coordinate

  • the appropriate response.

  • Now go check this video out here, or this other video instead!

MAYDAY: it's something we've heard a thousand times in movies and TV, and hopefully, never

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Why Do We Say MAYDAY in an Emergency? (Origins of Mayday Explained)

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    Summer posted on 2021/04/12
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