If you are a U.S. pilot who never leaves the confines of the United States and Canada, lost communications are pretty easy to remember and you should have no problem. See United States Exceptions for the specific procedures.
"Exceptions?" you say? Yes, what you grew up with are an exception to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) procedures and if you venture outside our shores, you have some studying to do. Keep in mind that the other countries you visit may have their own exceptions to these rules. So you have to know the ICAO rules as well as the rules for each country you visit or even fly over.
Each country is required to post their differences from the ICAO standard in their individual Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP). ICAO Doc 7030 - Regional Supplementary Procedures was supposed to have fixed all this, but it did not. Be careful out there.
When it comes to lost communications when in oceanic airspace, things are standard except for an exception in the Pacific.
If you have a copy of Jeppesen Airways Manual you should have all you need to learn about individual country lost communications procedures, but you need to understand International Standard Procedures first. Those are listed below, along with a few of the exceptions just to get you started. Remember that these are as of the date given at the bottom of the page. If you are leaving your home country tomorrow, you need to make sure your knowledge is up to date.
You almost never hear about airplanes these days going lost comm and having some kind of problem that ends up tragically. But it does happen. While it would be wrong to say the midair over Brazil by Embraer 135BJ N600XL and Gol Flight 1907 was caused by the American pilots using the wrong lost communications procedure, it is certainly true that the midair would not have happened had they applied ICAO procedures.
Oh yes, one more important thing to note. 14 CFR 91.185 tells us that if we lose communications while in VFR conditions, we should remain in VFR conditions. I decided a long time ago that I am not going to do that; I will execute the procedures under IFR and be as predictable as possible. If anyone has a problem with that, I'll face the consequences when they arrive. A reader asked about this specifically and Larry provided an excellent answer. See: Remain in VFR Conditions?
These procedures are what most of the world use and you should either have them memorized or easily accessible anytime you fly outside your home country. For us brought up in the United States, the key points are these: (1) timing depends on whether or not you are in radar contact, and (2) your altitude depends on your filed flight plan.
[ICAO Annex 2, ¶3.6.5]
188.8.131.52 An aircraft operated as a controlled flight shall maintain continuous air-ground voice communication watch on the appropriate communication channel of, and establish two-way communication as necessary with, the appropriate air traffic control unit, except as may be prescribed by the appropriate ATS authority in respect of aircraft forming part of aerodrome traffic at a controlled aerodrome.
Note 1.— SELCAL or similar automatic signaling devices satisfy the requirement to maintain an air-ground voice communication watch.
Note 2.— The requirement for an aircraft to maintain an air-ground voice communication watch remains in effect after CPDLC has been established.
184.108.40.206 Communication failure. If a communication failure precludes compliance with 220.127.116.11, the aircraft shall comply with the voice communication failure procedures of Annex 10, Volume II, and with such of the following procedures as are appropriate. The aircraft shall attempt to establish communications with the appropriate air traffic control unit using all other available means. In addition, the aircraft, when forming part of the aerodrome traffic at a controlled aerodrome, shall keep a watch for such instructions as may be issued by visual signals.
Annex 10, Volume II is a large document but there are a few specific paragraphs about communications failure, shown below.
18.104.22.168.1 If in visual meteorological conditions, the aircraft shall:
a) continue to fly in visual meteorological conditions; land at the nearest suitable aerodrome; and report its arrival by the most expeditious means to the appropriate air traffic services unit;
b) if considered advisable, complete an IFR flight in accordance with 22.214.171.124.2.
126.96.36.199.2 If in instrument meteorological conditions or when the pilot of an IFR flight considers it inadvisable to complete the flight in accordance with 188.8.131.52.1 a), the aircraft shall:
a) unless otherwise prescribed on the basis of regional air navigation agreement, in airspace where radar is not used in the provision of air traffic control, maintain the last assigned speed and level, or minimum flight altitude if higher, for a period of 20 minutes following the aircraft's failure to report its position over a compulsory reporting point and thereafter adjust level and speed in accordance with the filed flight plan;
b) in airspace where radar is used in the provision of air traffic control, maintain the last assigned speed and level, or minimum flight altitude if higher, for a period of 7 minutes following:
1) the time the last assigned level or minimum flight altitude is reached; or
2) the time the transponder is set to Code 7600; or
3) the aircraft's failure to report its position over a compulsory reporting point;
whichever is later, and thereafter adjust level and speed in accordance with the filed flight plan;
c) when being radar vectored or having been directed by ATC to proceed offset using area navigation (RNAV) without a specified limit, rejoin the current flight plan route no later than the next significant point, taking into consideration the applicable minimum flight altitude;
d) proceed according to the current flight plan route to the appropriate designated navigation aid or fix serving the destination aerodrome and, when required to ensure compliance with e) below, hold over this aid or fix until commencement of descent;
e) commence descent from the navigation aid or fix specified in d) at, or as close as possible to, the expected approach time last received and acknowledged; or, if no expected approach time has been received and acknowledged, at, or as close as possible to, the estimated time of arrival resulting from the current flight plan;
f) complete a normal instrument approach procedure as specified for the designated navigation aid or fix; and
g) land, if possible, within 30 minutes after the estimated time of arrival specified in e) or the last acknowledged expected approach time, whichever is later.
Note 1.— The provision of air traffic control service to other flights operating in the airspace concerned will be based on the premise that an aircraft experiencing communication failure will comply with the rules in 184.108.40.206.2.
Note 2. — See also 5.1.2.
[ICAO Annex 2, ¶5.1.2]
Except when necessary for take-off or landing, or except when specifically authorized by the appropriate authority, an IFR flight shall be flown at a level which is not below the minimum flight altitude established by the State whose territory is overflown, or, where no such minimum flight altitude has been established:
a) over high terrain or in mountainous areas, at a level which is at least 600 m (2 000 ft) above the highest obstacle located within 8 km of the estimated position of the aircraft;
b) elsewhere than as specified in a), at a level which is at least 300 m (1,000 ft) above the highest obstacle located within 8 km of the estimated position of the aircraft.
Note 1.— The estimated position of the aircraft will take account of the navigational accuracy which can be achieved on the relevant route segment, having regard to the navigational facilities available on the ground and in the aircraft.
Note 2.— See also 3.1.2.
[ICAO Annex 2, ¶3.1.2] Minimum heights
Except when necessary for take-off or landing, or except by permission from the appropriate authority, aircraft shall not be flown over the congested areas of cities, towns or settlements or over an open-air assembly of persons, unless at such a height as will permit, in the event of an emergency arising, a landing to be made without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
[ICAO Annex 10, ¶220.127.116.11] Communications Failure
18.104.22.168.1.1 When an aircraft station fails to establish contact with the aeronautical station on the designated frequency, it shall attempt to establish contact on another frequency appropriate to the route. If this attempt fails, the aircraft station shall attempt to establish communication with other aircraft or other aeronautical stations on frequencies appropriate to the route. In addition, an aircraft operating within a network shall monitor the appropriate VHF frequency for calls from nearby aircraft.
22.214.171.124.1.2 If the attempts specified under 126.96.36.199.1.1 fail, the aircraft station shall transmit its message twice on the designated frequency(ies), preceded by the phrase "TRANSMITTING BLIND" and, if necessary, include the addressee(s) for which the message is intended.
188.8.131.52.1.2.1 PANS.— In network operation, a message which is transmitted blind should be transmitted twice on both primary and secondary frequencies. Before changing frequency, the aircraft station should announce the frequency to which it is changing.
The rules in the North Atlantic are pretty much in accordance with ICAO procedures, but they are complicated by the density of air traffic. It helps to understand a few of the finer points of operating in this airspace.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.1] Rules and procedures for the operation of an aircraft following a radio communications failure (RCF) are established to allow ATC to anticipate that aircraft’s subsequent actions and thus for ATC to be able to provide a service to all other flights within the same vicinity, so as to ensure the continued safe separation of all traffic. The general principles of such rules and procedures are set out in Annexes 2 and 10 to the ICAO Convention. States publish in their AIPs specific RCF rules and regulations to be followed within their particular sovereign airspace.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.2] It must be recognised that there is in general an underlying premise in “normal” radio communications failure procedures that they are for use when a single aircraft suffers an on-board communications equipment failure. Within the NAT Region and some adjacent domestic airspace (e.g. Northern Canada), where HF Voice is used for air-ground ATC communications, ionospheric disturbances resulting in poor radio propagation conditions can also interrupt these communications. While it is impossible to provide guidance for all situations associated with an HF communications failure, it is, however, extremely important to differentiate between two distinct circumstances: - firstly, an on-board communications equipment failure, resulting in an individual aircraft losing HF communications with ATC and; secondly, the occurrence of poor HF propagation conditions (commonly referred to as “HF Blackouts”), which can simultaneously interrupt HF air-ground communications for many aircraft over a wide area.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.3] In the case of an on-board communications equipment failure, even though ATC loses contact with that aircraft, it can anticipate that aircraft’s actions and, if necessary, modify the profiles of other aircraft in the same vicinity in order to maintain safe separations.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.4] However, the occurrence of poor HF propagation conditions can simultaneously interrupt HF air-ground communications for many aircraft over a wide area and ATC may then be unable to make any interventions to assure safe traffic separations using HF. Notwithstanding the growing use of Data link and SATCOM Voice for regular air-ground ATS communications in the NAT Region, all pilots must recognise that, pending the mandatory carriage and use of such means, an HF blackout will impact the ability of ATC to ensure the safe separation of all traffic. Hence, even if using other than HF for regular communications with ATC, pilots should still exercise appropriate caution when HF blackout conditions are encountered.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.5] The following procedures are intended to provide general guidance for aircraft which experience a communications failure while operating in, or proposing to operate in, the NAT Region. These procedures are intended to complement and not supersede State procedures/regulations.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.6] Use SATVOICE communications, if so equipped.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.7] If not SATVOICE equipped try VHF relay via another aircraft.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.8] Poor HF propagation conditions are the result of ionospheric disturbances. These are usually caused by sun-spot or solar flare activity creating bursts of charged particles in the solar wind which can spiral down around the Earth’s magnetic lines of force and distort or disturb the ionised layers in the stratosphere which are utilised to refract HF radio waves. As with the Aurora Borealis, which is of similar origin, these ionospheric disturbances most commonly occur in regions adjacent to the Magnetic Poles. Since the Earth’s North Magnetic Pole is currently located at approximately 87N 150W, flights through the North Atlantic and Northern Canada regions can, on occasion, experience resulting HF communications difficulties.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.9] SATVOICE communications are unaffected by most ionospheric disturbances. Therefore, when so equipped, an aircraft may use SATVOICE for ATC communications.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.10] If not SATVOICE equipped, in some circumstances it may be feasible to seek the assistance, via VHF, of a nearby SATVOICE equipped aircraft to relay communications with ATC.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.11] Whenever aircraft encounter poor HF propagation conditions that would appear to adversely affect air-ground communications generally, it is recommended that all pilots then broadcast their position reports on the air-to-air VHF frequency 123.45 MHz. Given the density of traffic in the NAT Region and the fact that in such poor propagation conditions ATC will be unable to maintain contact with all aircraft, it is important that even those aircraft that have been able to establish SATCOM Voice contact also broadcast their position reports.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.12] If for whatever reason SATCOM Voice communications (direct or relayed) are not possible, then the following procedures may help to re-establish HF communications. Sometimes these ionospheric disturbances are very wide-spread and HF air-ground communications at all frequencies can be severely disrupted throughout very large areas (e.g. simultaneously affecting the whole of the NAT Region and the Arctic.). However, at other times the disturbances may be more localised and/or may only affect a specific range of frequencies.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.13] In this latter circumstance, HF air-ground communications with the intended aeradio station may sometimes continue to be possible but on a frequency other than either the primary or secondary frequencies previously allocated to an aircraft. Hence, in the event of encountering poor HF propagation conditions pilots should first try using alternative HF frequencies to contact the intended aeradio station.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.14] However, while the ionospheric disturbances may be severe, they may nevertheless only be localized between the aircraft’s position and the intended aeradio station, thus rendering communications with that station impossible on any HF frequency. But the aeradio stations providing air-ground services in the NAT Region do co-operate as a network and it may, even then, still be possible to communicate with another aeradio station in the NAT network on HF and request that they relay communications. Efforts should therefore be made to contact other NAT aeradio stations via appropriate HF frequencies.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.15] Nevertheless, as previously indicated, there are occasions when the ionospheric disturbance is so severe and so widespread that HF air-ground communications with any aeradio station within the NAT Region network are rendered impossible.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.16] Because of the density of oceanic traffic in the NAT region, unique operational procedures have been established to be followed by flight crews whenever communications are lost with ATC. If communications with the relevant OACC are lost at any time after receiving and acknowledging a clearance then the aircraft must adhere strictly to the routing and profile of the last acknowledged clearance until exiting the NAT region. Flight crews must not revert to their filed flight plan.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.17] Due to the potential length of time in oceanic airspace, it is strongly recommended that a flight crew, experiencing an HF communications equipment failure:
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.18] If, however, an oceanic clearance cannot be obtained, the individual aircraft suffering radio communications equipment failure should enter oceanic airspace at the first oceanic entry point, level and speed contained in the filed flight plan and proceed via the filed flight plan route to landfall. The initial oceanic level and speed included in the filed flight plan must be maintained until landfall. Any subsequent climbs included in the filed flight plan must not be executed.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.19] In the case of aircraft that lose ATC communications as a result of poor propagation conditions (HF Blackouts) when approaching NAT airspace through domestic airspace where ATC communications are also conducted via HF (e.g. entering the NAT through Northern Canadian airspace into the Reykjavik OCA), it is probably less advisable to execute unscheduled landings. These poor propagation conditions are very likely to affect many aircraft simultaneously and multiple diversions of “lost comms” aircraft might create further difficulties and risks.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.20] As with the equipment failure situation, aircraft approaching the NAT and losing ATC communications as a result of poor HF radio propagation conditions should, if already in receipt of an oceanic clearance, follow the routing specified in that clearance and maintain the initial cleared level and speed throughout the oceanic segment i.e. through to landfall.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.21] However, in these HF Blackout circumstances, if no oceanic clearance has been received, the aircraft must remain at the last cleared domestic flight level, not only to the ocean entry point but also throughout the whole subsequent oceanic segment (i.e. until final landfall). This is in stark contrast to the equipment failure case. In such HF Blackouts, pilots must not effect level changes to comply with filed flight plans. Such aircraft should, maintain the last cleared level and, enter oceanic airspace at the first oceanic entry point and speed contained in the filed flight plan, then proceed via the filed flight plan route to landfall.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.22] The rationale here must be appreciated. In such circumstances it is likely that ATC will have simultaneously lost HF communications with multiple aircraft in the same vicinity. Should flight crews then wrongly apply the “normal” radio failure procedures and “fly the flight plan”, there is a possibility that two such aircraft may have filed conflicting flight paths/levels through the subsequent oceanic airspace, and without communications with either aircraft, ATC would then be unable to intervene to resolve the conflict. Since safe aircraft level separation assurance has already been incorporated into the current domestic clearances, it is consequently imperative that under such (domestic and oceanic) HF-blackout circumstances, all aircraft electing to continue flight into NAT oceanic airspace without a received and acknowledged oceanic clearance, should adhere to the flight level in the last received domestic clearance. No level changes should be made to comply with a filed oceanic level that is different from that of the domestic clearance in effect at the time that ATC air-ground communications were lost.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.23] If the HF communications equipment failure occurs or HF Blackout conditions are encountered after entering the NAT then:
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.24] Aircraft with a destination within the NAT region should proceed to their clearance limit and follow the ICAO standard procedure to commence descent from the appropriate designated navigation aid serving the destination aerodrome at, or as close as possible to, the expected approach time. Detailed procedures are promulgated in relevant State AIPs.
[ICAO NAT Doc 007, ¶6.6.25] The foregoing detailed operational procedures can be simply summarised as follows:
In all cases, after landfall rejoin, or continue on, the flight planned route, using appropriate State AIP specified procedures for the domestic airspace entered.
[ICAO Doc 7030, PAC 9.3)
In the event of total loss of communication, an aircraft shall:
a) try to re-establish communication by all other means;
b) if all attempts to re-establish communication with ATC are unsuccessful:
1) squawk 7600;
2) if able, broadcast in the blind at suitable intervals: flight identification, flight level, aircraft position (including the ATS route designator or the track code) and intentions on the frequency in use, as well as on frequency 121.5 MHz (or, as a back-up, the VHF inter-pilot air-to-air frequency 123.45 MHz);
3) watch for conflicting traffic both visually and by reference to airborne collision avoidance systems or traffic displays (if equipped);
4) turn on all aircraft exterior lights (commensurate with appropriate operating limitations);
5) maintain the last assigned speed and level for a period of 60 minutes following the aircraft's failure to report its position over a compulsory reporting point (including ADS-C flights), and thereafter adjust speed and altitude in accordance with the filed flight plan;
Note.— In airspace where the strategic lateral offset procedures (SLOP) has been authorized, aircraft experiencing communication failure may also elect to initiate SLOP in accordance with State AIP, including an offset of 1.8 or 3.7 km (1 NM or 2 NM) right of track.
6) Upon exiting oceanic airspace, conform to the relevant State procedures and regulations.
[14 CFR 91, §91.185]
(a) General. Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, each pilot who has two-way radio communications failure when operating under IFR shall comply with the rules of this section.
(b) VFR conditions. If the failure occurs in VFR conditions, or if VFR conditions are encountered after the failure, each pilot shall continue the flight under VFR and land as soon as practicable.
(c) IFR conditions. If the failure occurs in IFR conditions, or if paragraph (b) of this section cannot be complied with, each pilot shall continue the flight according to the following:
(i) By the route assigned in the last ATC clearance received;
(ii) If being radar vectored, by the direct route from the point of radio failure to the fix, route, or airway specified in the vector clearance;
(iii) In the absence of an assigned route, by the route that ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance; or
(iv) In the absence of an assigned route or a route that ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance, by the route filed in the flight plan.
(2) Altitude. At the highest of the following altitudes or flight levels for the route segment being flown:
(i) The altitude or flight level assigned in the last ATC clearance received;
(ii) The minimum altitude (converted, if appropriate, to minimum flight level as prescribed in §91.121(c)) for IFR operations; or
(iii) The altitude or flight level ATC has advised may be expected in a further clearance.
(3) Leave clearance limit.
(i) When the clearance limit is a fix from which an approach begins, commence descent or descent and approach as close as possible to the expect-further-clearance time if one has been received, or if one has not been received, as close as possible to the estimated time of arrival as calculated from the filed or amended (with ATC) estimated time en route.
(ii) If the clearance limit is not a fix from which an approach begins, leave the clearance limit at the expect-further-clearance time if one has been received, or if none has been received, upon arrival over the clearance limit, and proceed to a fix from which an approach begins and commence descent or descent and approach as close as possible to the estimated time of arrival as calculated from the filed or amended (with ATC) estimated time en route.
Individual countries and even airports within the country may have their own peculiar routings and procedures to be used in the event of lost communications. Your Jeppesen manuals are your best source for this information but the location of the lost communications information is not consistent. You may find it on the individual airport briefing pages, the arrival/departure pages, the approach charts, or in the text pages. Among the text pages, you need to look at the ATC and Emergency pages.
The example shown on the photo comes from the Australia "State Rules and Procedures" pages of the Jeppesen JeppFD application. On an iPad you get there by having an Australian airport in the route, selecting a map, such as the "High IFR" chart selecting the manuals icon, selecting the "Pubs" button, selecting "Route Notes" arrow if it isn't already in view, selecting the Pacific region, selecting Pacific Airway Manual, and then selecting "State Rules and Procedures - Australia" under the "Air Traffic Control" section.
Some ARINC centers allow position reports via phone lines. The person answering the phone is a radio operator and expects the normal position reporting format. The phone number is on some en route charts and the Jeppesen Airway Manual En Route pages (check current en route chart to ensure the number is current): [Jeppesen Airway Manual En Route page 101]
ARINC Center / Direct Dial / INMARSAT Code
SFO / 925-371-3920 / 436625
NYC / 631-244-2492 / 436623
Shanwick / 9-011-44-1292-692663
Gander / 1-709-651-5212
Some Satcom providers have direct lines to various radio stations. Satcom-Direct, for example, offers the following:
Dear Team 7700,
One of the confusing FARs to explain is the one for Two-way Radio failure. I have been asking this for years. FAR 91.185 mentions about VFR and IFR conditions. When I flew under 121, and am at cruise altitude, my inclination was proceed to my destination, squawking 7600, calling ATC in the blind. Not always, but for the most part, using the proverbial good judgment. Why? My thinking is descending and going VFR to the nearest suitable airport, say DFW creates a bigger mess. Flying now under scheduled 135 operations, at cruise altitude, my take would be possibly the same. Again, there is also good judgment. rules. What is your thinking?
An interested reader
Dear Mr. Interested,
Thank you for your question. You ask “what is your thinking?” regarding complying with the provisions of 14 CFR § 91.185 (Two-way radio communications failure during IFR) while operating under scheduled 14 CFR Part 135.
Without knowing the type of aircraft, installed or loose avionics, (e.g., ADS-B, onboard Wifi, SATCOM, HF, NAVIAD voice feature, handheld aviation communication radio) or flight planned routes, altitudes, or weather conditions used in your example, unfortunately I cannot respond to your inquiry with any specificity. Also, keep in mind decisions arrived at while conducting operations under 14 CFR Part 121 and/or 14 CFR Part 135 may be influenced by corporate logistical and financial factors not germane to this discussion. However, I will attempt to provide helpful information within the four corners of your question.
First, a cursory search of the NTSB website reveals that since 1990, there have been no legal opinions and orders issued where violations of 14 CFR § 91.185 were charged. (NTSB legal opinions and orders are the final case decisions of the National Transportation Safety Board with regard to an airman, mechanic or mariner's appeal of action on his or her certificate.) This clearly suggests that with regards to a pilot’s actions in response to a two way radio communications failure, the Administrator (FAA) gives wide latitude to airmen. Nevertheless, numerous FAA legal interpretations reaffirm that strict adherence to the requirements of 14 CFR § 91.185 are necessary to ensure the safety of the national airspace system when a pilot is unable to communicate with ATC. (See FAA Legal Interpretations & Chief Counsel's Opinions, Desselles, Jr. (2009), Olshock (2010), Turri (2010, 2011) and Van West (2018))
Second, with today’s modern jet aircraft, total loss of two-way radio communications is a rarity. Indeed, the requirements of 14 CFR § 91.185 are rarely in effect thanks to the improved technology ensuring that communications between pilot and ATC are not lost. However, it can, and does occur. Perhaps the most famous case study is that of world-famous actor John Travolta’s mishap in his Gulfstream II, N728T, on 24 November 1992. That incident resulted in the NTSB issuing a 6-page Safety Recommendation to the Administrator on 14 February 1994. According to the safety recommendation, “N728T, a Gulfstream 2 turbojet airplane, experienced a complete electrical failure while flying above a solid overcast at night, south of Washington, D.C. Although the airplane eventually landed successfully at National Airport, several events occurred that jeopardized safety while air traffic control (ATC) was attempting to assist the airplane.” (See: https://www.ntsb.gov/safety/safety-recs/recletters/A94_6_8.pdf.)
Provided electrical power is available, loss of two-way radio communications is a rarity because modern onboard avionics provide multiple means to contact ATC in the event the VHF communication radios fail. First, most avionics installations include two VHF radios, so both would have to fail, or suffer a common failure (e.g., no electrical power) to become inoperative. Newer onboard Wifi systems allow Wifi calling, and with a suitable cell phone, a pilot can simply call an ATC facility to establish two-way communications. Likewise, SATCOM is another option, if the aircraft is so equipped. Other options are a “flite phone” (air-to-ground) or the HF radio(s), which can be used to contact ARINC or a ham radio operator to relay messages to an ATC facility. But for the purposes of this discussion, we will assume all those viable options are unavailable or inoperative.
14 CFR § 91.185 proscribes “Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, each pilot who has two-way radio communications failure when operating under IFR shall comply with the rules of this section.” 14 CFR § 91.185 (b) states: “VFR conditions. If the failure occurs in VFR conditions, or if VFR conditions are encountered after the failure, each pilot shall continue the flight under VFR and land as soon as practicable.” However, if the failure occurs in IFR conditions, the specific actions of 14 CFR § 91.185 (c) apply.
Regarding the “good judgment” you reference in your question, keep in mind ATC is expecting a pilot to comply with the VFR or IFR provisions of 14 CFR § 91.185. Complicating matters, however, is that ATC may not have reliable information as to the aircraft’s current or future meteorological flight conditions. In addition, ATC is expecting a pilot to comply with the VFR or IFR provisions of 14 CFR § 91.185 unless that pilot exercises the emergency authority granted under 14 CFR § 91.3. But in order to utilize emergency authority, the PIC must first determine that an in-flight emergency exists. (As defined in the AIM Pilot/Controller Glossary, an emergency can be either a distress or urgency condition. A distress condition is a condition of being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance. An urgency condition is a condition concerning the safety of an aircraft or other vehicle, or of person on board or in sight, but which does not require immediate assistance. It is important to note that NTSB has held that an emergency can exist even though no immediate action is required by the PIC. (See Administrator v. Owen, EA-1100, 3 NTSB 854 (1977)) Moreover, the pilot in command should formally declare the emergency to ATC if possible. (See 14 CFR § 91.183 (c)) However, NTSB has held that a PIC can take advantage of emergency powers without formally declaring an emergency. (See Administrator v. Clark, 2 NTSB 2015 footnote 8)
Once the PIC determines an in-flight emergency exists, 14 CFR § 91.3(b) authorizes the pilot in command of an aircraft to deviate from any rule of Part 91 to the extent necessary to resolve "an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action." Although the decision to deviate under these circumstances is within the PIC's judgment, this determination must be made in good faith based on safety concerns and not convenience; failure to do so may result in the suspension of the PIC's certificate. (See Administrator v. Van Dyke, NTSB Order No. EA-4883 (Mar. 5, 2001))
If deviation from 14 CFR § 91.185 is the course of action pursued, the question for the pilot then becomes when does two-way radio communications failure during IFR flight become an emergency? This is unanswerable because it depends on the specific situation and circumstances as determined by the pilot in command. It can be argued that the Travolta mishap is as close to a bona fide emergency due to loss of communications as any (night, above an overcast, reliance on whiskey compass, flashlight illumination, total loss of electrical power and navigation capability). But in other cases, an emergency may or may not exist at the time of communications failure. And in fact, a radio communications failure may never rise to the level of an emergency. In any case, if emergency authority is exercised, the Administrator and NTSB will ask if an emergency existed, and if so, were the pilot in command’s actions a reasonable and measured reaction to the circumstances?
Having reviewed this detailed regulatory background, we now turn to published guidance material in the Aeronautical Information Manual, Chapter 6, Emergency Procedures, Section 4, Two-way Radio Communications Failure. Section 6-4-1 states:
“(a) It is virtually impossible to provide regulations and procedures applicable to all possible situations associated with two‐way radio communications failure. During two‐way radio communications failure, when confronted by a situation not covered in the regulation, pilots are expected to exercise good judgment in whatever action they elect to take. Should the situation so dictate they should not be reluctant to use the emergency action contained in 14 CFR Section 91.3(b).
(b) Whether two‐way communications failure constitutes an emergency depends on the circumstances, and in any event, it is a determination made by the pilot. 14 CFR Section 91.3(b) authorizes a pilot to deviate from any rule in Subparts A and B to the extent required to meet an emergency.
(c) In the event of two‐way radio communications failure, ATC service will be provided on the basis that the pilot is operating in accordance with 14 CFR Section 91.185. A pilot experiencing two‐way communications failure should (unless emergency authority is exercised) comply with 14 CFR Section 91.185 quoted below:
(1) General. Unless otherwise authorized by ATC, each pilot who has two‐way radio communications failure when operating under IFR must comply with the rules of this section.
(2) VFR conditions. If the failure occurs in VFR conditions, or if VFR conditions are encountered after the failure, each pilot must continue the flight under VFR and land as soon as practicable.
NOTE-This procedure also applies when two‐way radio failure occurs while operating in Class A airspace. The primary objective of this provision in 14 CFR Section 91.185 is to preclude extended IFR operation by these aircraft within the ATC system. Pilots should recognize that operation under these conditions may unnecessarily as well as adversely affect other users of the airspace, since ATC may be required to reroute or delay other users in order to protect the failure aircraft. However, it is not intended that the requirement to “land as soon as practicable” be construed to mean “as soon as possible.” Pilots retain the prerogative of exercising their best judgment and are not required to land at an unauthorized airport, at an airport unsuitable for the type of aircraft flown, or to land only minutes short of their intended destination.”
All that being said, remember the first paragraph in AIM 6-4-1: "It is virtually impossible to provide regulations and procedures applicable to all possible situations associated with two-way radio communications failure. During two-way radio communications failure, when confronted by a situation not covered in the regulation, pilots are expected to exercise good judgment in whatever action they elect to take. Should the situation so dictate they should not be reluctant to use the emergency action contained in 14 CFR Section 91.3(b)."
I hope this information has been helpful and responsive to your question.
Portions of this page can be found in the book International Flight Operations, Part VI, Chapter 2.
14 CFR 91, Title 14: Aeronautics and Space, General Operating and Flight Rules, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation
ICAO Annex 2 - Rules of the Air, International Standards, Annex 2 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, July 2005
ICAO Annex 10 - Vol II - Communication Procedures, International Standards and Recommended Practices, Annex 10 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, Vol II, October 2001
ICAO Doc 7030, Amendment 1, International Civil Aviation Organization, 8 January 2009
ICAO Nat Doc 007, North Atlantic Operations and Airspace Manual, v. 2021-1, applicable from February 2021
Jeppesen Airways Manuals
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