Three calls of pan-pan are used in radiotelephone communications to signify that there is an urgency on board a boat, ship, aircraft, or other vehicle but that, for the time being at least, there is no immediate danger to anyone's life or to the vessel itself. This is referred to as a state of urgency. This is distinct from a mayday call, which means that there is imminent danger to life or to the continued viability of the vessel itself. Thus "pan-pan" informs potential rescuers (including emergency services and other craft in the area) that a safety problem exists whereas "mayday" will call upon them to drop all other activities and immediately initiate a rescue attempt.
As with mayday (from venez m'aider, "come help me"), the emergency call pan-pan derives from French. In French, a panne ([pan], "pan") is a breakdown, such as a mechanical failure. In English, it is also sometimes[vague] pronounced as // ("pan").
A three-letter backronym, "possible assistance needed" or "pay attention now" is derived from "pan". It is used in maritime and aeronautical radio communications courses as a mnemonic to radio and communications operators, specifically to reaffirm the important difference between mayday and pan-pan emergency communications.
The correct usage is "Pan-pan, pan-pan, pan-pan", followed by the intended recipient of the message, either "All stations, all stations, all stations" or a specific station, "Victoria Coast Guard Radio, Victoria Coast Guard Radio, Victoria Coast Guard Radio", the identification of the craft, its position, the nature of the problem and the type of assistance or advice required, if any. An equivalent Morse code signal used to be "X X X", with each letter sent distinctly. It is also correct to use "pan-pan" as a preface if relaying a "mayday" call from another station that is out of range of the station they are trying to contact. This is common in aviation VHF communications but not in nautical VHF communications.
Examples of the correct use of a "pan-pan" call from a boat or ship may include the following cases, provided the skipper or master remains confident that he or she can handle the situation and that there is no current danger to the life of any person or to the safety of the vessel itself.
Once the urgent situation which led to the Pan Pan broadcast has been resolved or contended with, conventional practice is for the station that initiated the Pan Pan call to make a follow-up broadcast to All Stations, informing them that the urgent situation no longer exists.
A call that originates as a "pan-pan" signal might be followed by a Mayday distress call if the situation deteriorates to the point of "grave and imminent danger", thus warranting immediate action (intervention, assistance, response) on the part of listeners in accordance with standard operating practices for distress signaling.
- Fouled propeller, engine failure or out of fuel
- Provided the vessel is now either anchored or under sail and safe from any immediate danger of collision or stranding. The crew may be planning to clear the propeller, refuel from an onboard supply, hoist sail or use some other alternative propulsion. Alternatively, as part of the "pan-pan" call the skipper may request a tow from a suitable vessel, if possible, but without immediate urgency.
- Small fire on board—now extinguished
- Fire can be very dangerous afloat but if it was small and contained and is now certainly put out without injury to any crew, then a "pan-pan" call is appropriate to warn others that investigations are underway to establish the extent of the damage, clear the smoke from below and hopefully re-establish passage as soon as possible.
- Unsure of position
- Provided there is no apparent danger of stranding or hitting rocks, a "pan-pan" call on marine VHF radio may allow nearby coast-stations and perhaps other vessels to triangulate the source of the transmissions and provide the captain with both a fix and perhaps some advice on the best course to steer to reach a safe haven.
- Man-overboard recovery
- If safely recovering a person overboard, a "pan-pan" call on VHF makes other nearby vessels aware of the situation and ensures that they keep a lookout, avoid coming too close, avoid excessive wake or otherwise interfering. It also alerts them to the fact that the recovery vessel is maneuvering for urgent life-saving and is therefore 'restricted in its ability to manoeuvre' in accordance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). If the recovery vessel has lost sight of the person overboard, if the person overboard loses consciousness, if there is a danger of hypothermia or any other grave risk to life, then a mayday call is more appropriate so that other nearby vessels may offer help with the search and recovery, rather than keeping clear.
- Overdue vessel
- The Canadian and US Coast Guard (and likely similar maritime safety agencies in other countries) issue "urgent marine information broadcasts" concerning vessels that have been reported overdue, as part of the process of a 'communications search' or 'pre-com' phase of uncertain, possible distress, as determined under the authority of a maritime rescue co-ordination centre or joint maritime-aeronautical rescue co-ordination centre. The message content, a description of the vessel under the apprehension of being missing, its last known position and the date last heard from, and the supposed route or passage plan of the vessel, is preceded by the procedure words Pan Pan and will be addressed to "all stations". Any stations having information concerning the whereabouts of the named vessel are asked to communicate with and report same to the nearest coast guard station.
- Imminent collision alert
- It may be warranted to urgently attempt to make radio contact with an approaching vessel that is running into danger or approaching a dangerous close quarters situation and therefore at risk of colliding with one's own vessel, and warning the operator to keep clear. This would be a 'bridge-to-bridge' communication and could be done in combination with sounding the "your intentions are unclear or not understood" sound signal, which is 5 or more short horn or whistle blasts, the 'danger signal'. A short blast is 1 second long, compared to a prolonged blast of 5 seconds duration under the COLREGS. An urgent warning could also be given over the radio, for example, if the called vessel appears to be unaware that it is potentially or at risk of endangering a person in a small boat or a person swimming, such as running the person down. A loud hailer could also be used along with a radio warning.
- Medical assistance
- A "pan-pan medico" call was recommended if someone becomes injured or in need of medical help at sea. If the vessel is heading to shore and wants to be met by an ambulance crew, the local Coast Guard station can arrange this. A doctor or other trained medical advisor may also be available on the radio, perhaps by patching through via telephone from ashore or from a nearby vessel. If there is immediate risk to life, then a "mayday" call is more appropriate. "Pan-pan medico" is no longer in official use.
Marine rescue organisations, such as Coastal Patrol, Coast Guard, and Search and Rescue listen on marine radio frequencies for all distress calls including "pan-pan". These organisations can coordinate or assist and can relay such calls to other stations that may be better able to do so.
The call was used during the urgent emergency landing requests sent as a result of the electrical fire which was to destroy Swissair Flight 111. Also, in the wake of Avianca Flight 52, the call is frequently used to denote situations where fuel is getting low for given conditions, but not yet at a critical emergency state. Qantas Flight QF-74 used the call "Pan Pan Pan" when it had an engine failure on its fourth engine soon after take off from San Francisco. Qantas Flight 72 (QF-72) issued a pan-pan when the aircraft experienced rapid, uncommanded movements in which the plane dropped several hundred feet without instruction from the flight crew. Several passengers and crew suffered major and minor injuries, and so the call was upgraded to "mayday".
Air Berlin Flight 9721, on an Airbus A330 with registration D-ALPA, issued a Pan-Pan on 5 May 2012, 15 minutes before touchdown at Munich from Palma Mallorca, when the crew reported fatigue to the traffic controllers and requested autoland. They in turn had to organize airspace for automatic landing 15 minutes later.
On 15 December 2010, an RAF CH-47 Chinook helicopter with serial number ZH891 was on a daytime tasking in flight within the Green Zone when it came under small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. A 7.62-mm round penetrated the cockpit and hit the instrument panel, severing 36 wires leading to it from various instruments. The wiring loom was sheared as a result, which caused an instruments failure without damaging vital components. As the Chinook was still able to fly level, pilot Flight Lieutenant Alex "Frenchie" Duncan decided to issue a pan-pan rather than a mayday to Bastion Tower. The Chinook made it back to Camp Bastion safely without further incident.
On 12 October 2013, Cyprus Airways flight number CY303 from Vienna to Larnaca, operated by an Airbus 319-100, registration number 5B-DCN, issued a pan-pan over Thessaloniki, Greece, due to a crack on the pilots' windscreen. The pilots immediately descended to 23,000 feet to reduce pressure and the risk of the windscreen breaking. The pilots decided the best solution was to land at Eleftherios Venizelos airport in Athens, Greece, something which they managed after 30 minutes of flight. The aircraft landed on runway 03R, which is a special emergency runway at the Athens airport.
In February 2016, Virgin Atlantic flight VS025 from London to New York issued a Pan-Pan to the west of Ireland, when the co-pilot reported feeling unwell due to an earlier incident with a laser soon after take-off. The plane returned to Heathrow as a "precautionary measure".
One special case of "pan-pan" is to ask for medical advice. This is a normal "pan-pan" call including a phrase such as "request medical advice" and the identification of the craft, its position and the nature of a medical problem suffered by one of the passengers or crew. This type of call is specifically used in order to get a doctor's advice for a medical problem that does not, in the current opinion of the skipper or master of the vessel, seem to be life-threatening.
The phrase "pan-pan medico" is used in some older reference books, but is no longer in official use.
Once patched through to a medical expert either on land or in another vessel, the radio operator will most likely be asked to describe some detail of the symptoms and history of the condition and perhaps some medical history of the casualty too. The doctor will, most likely, be able to recommend first aid treatment and give other advice to make the patient more comfortable, using whatever resources are available on board. In some cases a decision may be made that the medical case is more urgent than the skipper assumed, and so the call will be escalated to a 'mayday' and receive immediate intervention by rescuers, if at all possible.
- "Safety and Distress Radiotelephone Procedures". Transport Canada. 28 June 2013. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
- District Eleven Response (dr). "Search and Rescue: Calling the Coast Guard". United States Coast Guard. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
- 1st Coast Guard District (6 September 2001). "Special Notice To Mariners" (PDF). United States Coast Guard. Retrieved 13 August 2013.
- "RIC-22 — General Radiotelephone Operating Procedures". ic.gc.ca.
- "RIC-22 — General Radiotelephone Operating Procedures". ic.gc.ca.
- Transport Canada: "PAN PAN"
- "Air Traffic Organization Policy, Order JO7110.65W" (PDF). U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration.
- Admirality List Of Radio Signals, 2012 Vol.5 page 88 B3
- Tim Bartlett (2009). VHF handbook. Southampton: The Royal Yachting Association. p. 53. ISBN 978-1-905104-03-1.
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- Duncan, Alex (2012). Sweating the Metal. London: Hodder & Stoughton. pp. 297–306, 308. ISBN 978-1-444-70800-4.
- "Incident: Cyprus A319 near Athens on Oct 13th 2013, cracked windshield". The Aviation Herald. 13 October 2013.
- "Virgin Atlantic flight back in UK after 'laser incident'". BBC News.