Why We Say ‘MAYDAY’

For pilots, uttering the phrase “MAYDAY” means they’re in trouble—but have you ever wondered why?

MAYDAY and PAN-PAN—also used when we’re in trouble—are both derived from French phrases. [Credit: iStock]

May 1st, also known as May Day, has several connotations. In some cultures it is celebrated as the traditional beginning of spring marked by placing baskets of flowers on doorsteps. 

For pilots, uttering the phrase "MAYDAY" means they're in trouble—but have you ever wondered why?

MAYDAY and PAN-PAN—also used when we’re in trouble—are both derived from French phrases.

MAYDAY comes from the phrase “venez m'aider,” which translates roughly to "come help me." PAN-PAN comes from panne, which translates to a breakdown.

Distress, Urgency Conditions

Per the FAA Pilot/Controller Glossary, an emergency can be either a distress or urgency condition.

  • For an urgency condition, the pilot should repeat "PAN-PAN" three times.
  • For an emergency, "MAYDAY" should be repeated three times.

The FAA defines distress as "a condition of being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance.”

An urgent situation is "a condition of being concerned about safety and of requiring timely but not immediate assistance; a potential distress condition."

French Influence on Aviation

These phrases are just part of the French influence in aviation. The terms aileron, fuselage, and empennage are also French. Aileron, for example, means "little wing," fuselage is derived from fuseler, which means to shape like a spindle, and empennage means "feathering."

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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