Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! - the Origin of a Distress Call

In honor of May Day (May 1st, a holiday associated with the beginning of spring and the labor movement in many counties), I thought I’d take a moment to explore how the same word came to mean HELP in aviation!

The term Mayday is used internationally as a distress signal in voice procedure radio communications. It derives from the French venez m'aider, meaning "come help me". It is used to signal a life-threatening emergency by many groups, such as police forces, pilots, firefighters, and transportation organizations. The call is always given three times in a row ("Mayday Mayday Mayday") to prevent mistaking it for some similar-sounding phrase under noisy conditions, and to distinguish an actual Mayday call from a message about a Mayday call.

The Mayday procedure word originated in 1923 by Frederick Stanley Mockford (1897–1962). A senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, Mockford was asked to think of a word that would indicate distress and would easily be understood by all pilots and ground staff in an emergency. Since much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he proposed the word "Mayday" from the French m’aider.

Before the voice call "Mayday", SOS was the Morse code equivalent of the Mayday call. In 1927, the International Radiotelegraph Convention of Washington adopted the voice call Mayday in place of the SOS Morse Code call.

Other emergency calls include "Pan-Pan" (from the French: panne – a breakdown), or simply "declaring an emergency" – although the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) recommends using the two terms above to prevent confusion and errors in aircraft handling. The use of these terms without proper cause could render the user liable to civil and/or criminal charges.

Now to come full circle, I leave you with a related scene from one of your favorite aviation films.