The origin of ‘mayday’ in aviation

When a plane is suffering a serious emergency, the pilot activates the radio and communicates “mayday” three times, while trying to save the situation.

It’s a situation we’ve probably seen countless times in films about aviation. The use of the term “mayday” is neither an invention nor a fiction. It’s emergency code and has a lot of history behind it.

The plane is probably – statistics show – one of the safest means of transport. However, in aviation, as with any human activity, incidents can sometimes occur that lead to emergency situations, either because of problems in the aircraft itself or for external reasons.

Protocols and security in flights

The technical crew, the pilot and co-pilot, have hours and hours of training behind them and are prepared to manage these situations and be able to deal with them safely. The cabin crew is also trained to maintain safety during the flight. They are in charge of informing the passengers of the security measures and act as guides in case something goes wrong, so that in case of an incident or accident the action protocols cover any circumstance no matter how remote it may seem.

However, when an emergency occurs, the safety of the aircraft and its occupants is not only the responsibility of those on board. Flight controllers and airport ground staff are involved in the operation to ensure that the emergency or precautionary landing goes smoothly.

This operation may include clearing the airstrip, alerting emergency services to potential health care needs, positioning fire trucks, and other vital tasks in the event of serious situations.

But in order for all that to be prepared in advance, the controllers have to receive a declaration of emergency from the pilot. And this is where the famous “mayday” repeated three times on the radio comes in.

Where do they use the word “mayday”?

The word “mayday” serves as a warning that an emergency is occurring. Although it may seem a random term, this emergency signal has been in use for decades, and has quite a history behind it.
The choice of “mayday” to warn of dangerous situations was not accidental. The term in question had a fairly logical origin.

Contrary to what some people may believe, it has nothing to do with the “May Day” or Festividad de los Mayos, a day of celebrations of pagan origin that is celebrated in various regions of Europe, which over time have become Christianized and have become a festival in honor of the Virgin Mary.

On the contrary, the creation of the term is informally attributed (there is no official record of the fact) to Frederick Stanley Mockford, a professional radio operator in Croydon, United Kingdom.

Although Mayday sounds like English, the reality is that the term comes from French. Specifically “m’aidez”, a verbal form that literally means “help me”. The relationship between the two terms is simple: “mayday” onomatopoeically sounds the same as “m’aidez”.

That combination of a French word slightly transformed to sound English has its explanation in the increase of flights between France and the United Kingdom across the English Channel, which involved, both on planes and on the ground, French and British personnel. The phonetic use of the word Mayday allowed listeners in both countries to understand easily.

Maybe that’s why mayday was easily assimilated as a distress signal. And it has adapted so well that it lasts even to this day. Being an emergency signal for airplanes, it is also used in the merchant navy and in space ships.

In what cases is “mayday” used?

It is important to note that mayday is not used in all emergencies. This signal is specifically reserved for serious emergencies where lives or the aircraft itself are at risk.

The protocol states that the three times repetition of the word mayday – the repetition serves to draw the attention of the controllers – must be followed by the data of the flight (identification, position) and the type of emergency that is taking place.