There are 3 aircraft emergency squawk codes that every pilot needs to know. They are 7500, 7600, and 7700. It’s not only important to know what the codes are used for, but also how to avoid switching to these codes in non-emergency situations to avoid setting off alarms in ATC facilities.
As important as it is to know the following squawk codes, it may also not always be necessary to use them. Read each individual section below for details.
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These instructions are intended for United States pilots only. The following procedures are not meant for anyone flying in countries or territories outside of the United States. Check with your regulating authority in aviation for the countries you fly in, if outside the U.S.
Also, this article is meant to give a brief summary of the transponder codes for emergency situations. It is not a substitute for studying the appropriate rules and regulations from the FAA.
7700 – Distress or Urgency Condition
Before we begin discussing emergencies, let’s define our terms as listed in the Pilot/Controller Glossary.
- Distress – A condition of being threatened by serious and/or imminent danger and of requiring immediate assistance.
- Urgency – A condition of being concerned about safety and of requiring timely but not immediate assistance; a potential distress condition.
If you encounter a distress or urgency situation, you should follow the recommended procedures listed in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM), Chapter 6. This includes much more than squawking 7700, so study up.
It’s possible you may not need to use 7700. If you are already in contact with an ATC facility, you do not need to set your transponder to 7700. You should just follow all other emergency procedures.
However, if you are not already in contact with ATC, by all means set your transponder to 7700. This will alert a ground radar facility in the area. Establish radio communications with a nearby ATC facility as soon as possible.
Once again, study not only the AIM, but all the appropriate manuals and handbooks for emergency situations. These manuals include the Airplane Flying Handbook, The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, and of course, the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) for the aircraft you are flying.
Setting your transponder is the easy part. Handling the entirety of the emergency appropriately is what is important!
7600 – Two-Way Radio Communication Failure (NORDO)
Pilots should squawk 7600 when they lose communications with ATC. This will relay the information to them quickly. Procedures for radio communication failure vary based on whether you are flying VFR or IFR.
Losing radio communications with ATC is not a huge problem if you are flying VFR. After all, a radio isn’t even required equipment for VFR flight in the U.S. If you experience radio communication failure with ATC, it is advisable to land at an uncontrolled airport that is not busy.
If landing at a Class D airport under VFR is absolutely necessary during a radio communication failure, you can follow the instructions in the appropriate FAA handbooks and manuals for instructions on how to conduct those procedures. Get familiar with the light gun signals.
IFR flight, however, is a little different. Two-way radio is an IFR requirement. The instructions for continued flight with radio failure, under IFR is outside the scope of this article. Consult the AIM for definitive instructions.
Under VFR or IFR flight, you should set your transponder code to 7600 if you experience radio communication failure and want to alert ATC facilities.
7500 – Air Piracy (Hijacking or Hostile Acts Onboard)
The transponder code 7500 should be used in the event of air piracy (hijacking), or a hostile act onboard the aircraft which threatens the safety of the aircraft or passengers.
The AIM instructs pilots to conduct normal distress or urgency procedures in the event of hijacking or hostile acts onboard the aircraft, as able. Obviously it may not be possible to perform normal emergency procedures while under duress, but communicate as much as possible.
Along with setting the transponder to 7500, we are also advised to speak the words “TRANSPONDER SEVEN FIVE ZERO ZERO” over the radio if able. See the AIM for more information on how to handle air piracy.
How & Why To Avoid Inadvertently Using Emergency Squawk Codes
Under normal, non-emergency operations, it is important to avoid using the transponder codes of 7500, 7600, and 7700 while switching (aka “cycling”) codes. It is easy to see how a pilot could easily switch to one of these 3 codes on accident.
For instance, assume your transponder is set to 2700 and you need to set it to 7200. If you start from the first number and work your way through, left to right, you could easily move the 2 to a 7 and all of a sudden, you are squawking 7700. There are numerous cases where this could happen, but this example is the easiest to illustrate.
Even if you move through the numbers quickly, it’s best to avoid this. Here’s why. When you set your transponder to one of these codes, it sets off automated alarms in ATC facilities. In a real emergency, that is a great thing! It gets everyone’s attention, right?
Just try to avoid false alarms whenever possible because the more false alarms ATC gets, the more confusion it creates in the system. In a real emergency, confusion is the last thing anyone wants.
How To Remember These Codes
My flight instructor gave me three sayings to memorize to help me remember the transponder squawk codes to use during emergencies. These might sound a bit harsh, but they get the job done.
- “Seven five, taken alive”
- “Seven six, in a fix”
- “Seven seven, going to heaven”
“Taken alive” obviously means a hostage situation. If someone is considered to be taken alive, that phrase makes me think of pirates out on the sea taking over a ship. In this case, the piracy is happening in the air.
“In a fix” is a good way of remembering a radio issue. It doesn’t sound like a drastic situation that evokes feelings of panic (to me anyway), but it does help me remember that a radio communication failure is a “fix” that needs to be dealt with.
“Going to heaven” – well I don’t think much needs to be said about that. That is a great way to remember a drastic situation that needs immediate attention and if not dealt with properly…you may just be meeting your deceased ancestors shortly. There, that helped you remember 7700, didn’t it? 😉
Make sure you not only know the aircraft emergency squawk codes and what they are used for, but also the little nuances of each. For instance it may not always be necessary to use these codes. Study up on emergency procedures for your aircraft and all emergencies procedures in the FAA manuals and handbooks for more info.
Have you ever had to use an emergency squawk code? Do you have these memorized? Did my mnemonic help you remember them? Comment below, and let me know!