What Does Mayday Call Mean?

Pilots · 5 min read · Nov 08, 2022
what does mayday call mean

If you are an ardent movie fanatic, an active reader, or a history enthusiast, you have heard the term mayday at least once in your lifetime. Mayday is a word that a number of people know but whose meaning many cannot describe with certainty.

If you have ever wondered what the word mayday means, you have come to the right place. This article explains what a mayday call is and everything you need to know about the term. Some of the topics covered in the article include the meaning of the term, making a mayday call, its origin, and other useful information one needs to know about the mayday call. 

Meaning of mayday

The word mayday has a unique meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, the term is reserved for use over the radio to signal distress or danger and call for help. When used, it signifies a life-threatening emergency to the recipient of the call. Notably, mayday calls are mostly utilized on a ship or a plane. Although we hope to never hear our captains make the call when in transit, it is essential to understand how the mayday call is used.  

An aircraft landing on an illuminated runway.

How to use a mayday call?

Typically, a mayday call is used in a plane or a ship, although it can be used in a variety of other situations. One uses the mayday call to call for help when in danger or in distress. Therefore, although you may not be a pilot or ship captain, there is no harm in learning how to make a mayday call. The mayday call alerts authorities to help people in danger. Consequently, communication over the call should be clear and concise, allowing the relevant authorities to determine the type of help required and the urgency.

Making a mayday call

Since the call signifies a life-threatening emergency, it is wise to know how to make a mayday call. The knowledge can help one when in danger. A typical mayday call starts by saying the word “mayday” thrice in a row. Doing so ensures that the phrase cannot be mistaken for another phrase that sounds similar.

In the case of a plane or a ship, a senior radio officer would make the call via emergency frequencies and start by saying, “Mayday. Mayday. Mayday.” The communication should be loud and clear so that the person at the other end of the call notes that the person making the call is in an emergency situation. 

Then, the senior radio officer relays the nature of the distress and the kind of help required. Some vital information shared at this point includes the number of people on board, fuel remaining, the type and identity of ship or aircraft involved, and the nature of the emergency. The information shared helps to avail the help needed.

When a mayday call is made, it is prioritized over other radio communications. Therefore, the communication channel stays open until help arrives.  

A Ryanair aircraft landing at an airport behind a barbed wire fence.

Additionally, it is vital to indicate the position of the aircraft or ship when making a mayday call. If unknown, the captain indicates the last known aircraft’s location and heading. Although most usually say “help me,” it is crucial to state the nature of help required when making a mayday call.

Any other useful information can be indicated as well. Such information may include the number of injured people, the nature of the injuries, and the extent of damage to the plane or ship. All the information aids in responding in a timely fashion to the call for help.


The mayday call has an interesting origin. In the 1920s, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport was tasked with coining a phrase that would indicate distress and not get mistaken for any other word.

At the time, most traffic at Croydon was to and from Le Bourget Airport in Paris. The senior radio officer, Frederick Stanley Mockford, desired to use a term that all pilots and ground staff would understand to mean distress during an emergency.

He proposed the expression “mayday” which is simply “m’aider” from the French language. In the French language, “m’aider” implies “help me” and is shortened from the longer phrase “venez m’aider,” which means “come and help me.” Therefore, the mayday call was formulated as a special phrase that communicates distress signals and helps to ask for help.

Official use

Official use of mayday call to mean distress, signify danger, and call for help was adopted in 1927. Its official use resulted from the International Radiotelegraph Convention when it was seen fit that mayday should replace the previously used term, SOS. The convention sought to have an easier way to ask for help than the then-widely used SOS. Since then, it has been set apart for official use in asking for help in case of emergencies usually on a ship or plane. 

An aircraft landing on a runway on a clear day.

Mayday and SOS

Now that we know about the mayday call, its meaning, and its origin, it is prudent to understand the term that it replaced as well. Although some use these terms interchangeably, they are unique.

The SOS was in use before the mayday call was thought of. SOS is an acronym that means save our souls. SOS was sent using Morse code, making it inapplicable to anyone that is unfamiliar with the code. The mayday call is more applicable to people in danger for this reason.

How serious is the mayday call?

A mayday call should not be taken lightly as it is a serious situation. As explained earlier, all radio communications are cleared when someone makes this distress call to signify danger and call for help.

Therefore, a mayday call means some people are in distress and require immediate attention from authorities or local responders. In the United States, making fake mayday calls is a crime punishable by up to six years of imprisonment, a criminal fine of $250,000, or a civil fine of $5,000. Clearly, the consequences of a fake mayday call are far-reaching. Let no one blindside you that a fake mayday call is a good phone call prank. 

What does mayday call mean? An aircraft landing due to a distress call.

Other situations for a distress call

You may be wondering what to do for other situations that are distressing but are not life-threatening given the strict punishments for mayday calls deemed unfitting. For such situations, there are other words one can use to convey an urgent need for help.

An example is the term “Pan-Pan” coined from the French word ‘panne’. When used, it implies a call for help involving an urgent medical or mechanical issue. To avoid confusion, Pan-Pan is also said thrice at the beginning of a call, just like a mayday call. 

Another signal one can use is the “securite,” a derivative of the french word ‘sécurité’. It means safety and is used to convey specific messages about safety to avoid emergencies. They include navigation hazards and bad weather.

The phrase is also said three times in a row at the beginning of the call to avoid confusion. All the conventional means, like stating the emergency and type of help required, apply to the two other phrases used in place of mayday when in emergency situations that are not life-threatening.

What does mayday call mean? A decommissioned aircraft left in the woods.


What are some of the key takeaways from this discourse? Foremost, the mayday call is a universally recognized official phrase to ask for help in emergency situations that are life-threatening. Although it can be used in a variety of situations, it is mostly used on a ship or in a plane.

A mayday call starts with saying the phrase thrice to ensure it is clear and not confused with any other phrase. The term means “help me,” and when making a mayday call, one should share all information pertinent to the emergency that can ease the delivery of help.

In case of an emergency that is not life-threatening, one can use other phrases like “Pan-Pan” or “securite,” depending on the situation. Fake mayday calls should be avoided at all times as they constitute a crime and attract heavy penalties.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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