Why People on Planes and Ships Use the Word “Mayday” When in Extreme Distress

This is an excerpt from our new book: The Wise Book of Whys, available in: Print | Kindle | Nook | Audiobook

distressToday I found out why those aboard planes and ships use the word “Mayday” to indicate they are in extreme distress.

In 1923, a senior radio officer, Frederick Stanley Mockford, in Croydon Airport in London, England was asked to think of one word that would be easy to understand for all pilots and ground staff in the event of an emergency.

The problem had arisen as voice radio communication slowly became more common, so an equivalent to the Morse code SOS distress signal was needed.  Obviously a word like “help” wasn’t a good choice for English speakers because it could be used in normal conversations where no one was in distress.

At the time Mockford was considering the request, much of the traffic he was dealing with was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, France. With both the French and English languages in mind, he came up with the somewhat unique word “Mayday”, the anglicized spelling of the French pronunciation of the word “m’aider” which means “help me”.

Four years later, in 1927, the International Radiotelegraph Convention of Washington made “Mayday” the official voice distress call used only to communicate the most serious level of distress, such as with life-threatening emergencies.

When using Mayday in a distress call, it is traditional to repeat it three times in a row, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday”. This is to make sure it is easily distinguishable from a message about a Mayday call and from any similar sounding phrases in noisy conditions.

In situations where a vessel requires assistance, not from grave and imminent danger, a distress call of “pan-pan” can be used instead. Essentially, it means you need aid, but you don’t need support personnel to necessarily drop what they’re doing right that instant and come help you, as with a Mayday.

Like Mayday, pan-pan is the anglicized spelling of a French word, in this case “panne”, which means “broken/failure/breakdown”.  Also, as with Mayday, one should state it three consecutive times: “pan-pan pan-pan pan-pan”, followed by which station(s) you are addressing and your last known location, nature of your emergency, etc.

If there is no reply to a Mayday or pan-pan call by the Coast Guard or other emergency agency, and a couple minutes have passed since the last one, some other radio source, such as another ship or plane that received the call, should transmit their own Mayday call, but on behalf of the ship or plane that first made the call, repeating the pertinent information they heard when they received the Mayday message.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Making false declaration of “Mayday” in the United States can get you up to six years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
  • Contrary to popular vernacular, you would never actually say “over and out” in an official radio communication.  Why? Because “over” means you’re done talking and are expecting a reply.  “Out” means you are both done talking and are finished with the communication, not expecting a reply from anyone.
  • During the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, even though four planes crashed, only one was able to make a Mayday call. Flight 93 crashed into a field in Stonycreek Township, Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and made two Mayday calls to Air Traffic Control in Cleveland. The first call was at 09:28:17. Captain Jason Dahl can be heard shouting, “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” over sounds of violence. The second Mayday call came at 09:28:50 when someone in the cockpit shouted, “Mayday! Get out of here! Get out of here!”. No one knows exactly when Flight 93 came under the control of the highjackers but by 09:31:57, highjacker Ziad Jarrah was making announcements to the plane’s passengers and inadvertently to Air Traffic Control in Cleveland.
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  • So there’s no connection between the distress call ‘Mayday’ and Mayday Hospital in Croydon (recently renamed – but called Mayday Road Hospital in 1923)? Seems very coincidental especially as Frederick Stanley Mockford worked at Croydon Airport!

    • Daven Hiskey

      Not according to the official record, with the first instance of the explanation popping up just shortly after he came up with it, stating the origin as it says above. That said, it does seem coincidental and perhaps he knew of the street and formerly named hospital in question which inspired him to think of the French expression, and perhaps later he forgot all about the street and just went with the latter when explaining his reasoning. 🙂 I can’t find any documented evidence though that this is what happened, so definitely can’t put it in the book (nothing but hard documented stuff there). But, as you say, it does seem coincidental. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that!

  • Mayday? Why, that’s the Russian New Year! We can have a big parade and serve hot hors d’oeuvres…

  • The French term is m’aidez, not m’aider. It’s the imperative not the infinitive!

    Interesting article though – thanks!

  • I’ve always thought it came from m’aidez, not m’aider.

  • Actually, it’s “m’aidez”, ending in a Z (not “m’aider, ending in an R”) – it’s the imperative form of the verb “to help”, not the infinitive, “aider”,

  • The U.S. Coast Guard also uses “Hello all stations” repeated three times for a message that everyone should hear. It’s often used to locate a nearby ship than could bring assistance to a ship in trouble.
    My grip? At least with the Seattle USCG, they often repeat the obvious multiple times, such as “This is US Coast Guard Station Seattle,” but they often only give a ship’s location once, something that absolutely matters and could be lost in a burst of wind or thunder.
    I’ve often thought of suggest to the USCG that vital information such as location should not only be given three times, but in three ways, including:

    1. A location based on miles from a well-known location, i.e. “20 miles north of Whitby Island.”
    2. A more precise but perhaps more obscure location.
    3. The latitude and longitude for those with a GPS.

    Often, what the USCG is saying seems intended for the recorded record of the response.

    On other suggestion. For marine VHF, don’t chat on channel 16. Use it to establish contact on another channel if necessary and move there. The USCG wants to keep channel 16 clear for distress calls.

  • No, “m’aider” is correct it is taken from “venez m’aider !” which means “come help me”. The imperative form of “help me” is “aidez-moi !” not “m’aidez”…

  • Funny as it is ‘May Day’ was the name of a steam boat in Arthur conan Doyle’s Adventure of The Cardboard Box. The story revolves around the problem of a lady from Croydon,london.