What does “mayday” mean? What is the history of “mayday”?

Front view from outside of a female pilot in the cockpit of an airplane.
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What does “mayday” mean? What is the history of “mayday”?

The history of distress signals is a fascinating journey through communication and emergency response evolution. Before the adoption of standardized distress calls, navigating emergencies in the air and at sea was fraught with challenges. However, thanks to the ingenuity of individuals like Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer in London, a universal distress signal emerged, revolutionizing emergency communication worldwide.

This article delves into the origins of distress signals, focusing on the iconic “mayday,” its significance, and the protocols surrounding its use.

What does Mayday mean?

“Mayday” is a distress signal used internationally in voice communications. It is used to signal a life-threatening emergency, especially at sea or in the air. The term “mayday” comes from the French phrase “m’aider,” which means “help me.” When someone radios “mayday,” it indicates that they require immediate assistance due to a critical situation endangering their life or the lives of others.

What is the history of Mayday?

The origin of the distress call “mayday” can be traced back to the early 20th century. In 1923, a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London, Frederick Stanley Mockford, was tasked with finding a suitable distress call for pilots in danger. At that time, there was no standardized way for pilots to communicate distress. Since much air traffic flew between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, he thought using a French word could be helpful.

Frederick Stanley Mockford, 1923

After considering several options, Mockford settled on “mayday,” which he thought was easy to understand and pronounce across different languages. It is derived from the French word “m’aider,” meaning “help me.” The use of “mayday” quickly spread and became the internationally recognized distress signal for aviation and maritime emergencies. The U.S. adopted “mayday” as an official distress signal in 1927. 

Pilots repeat “mayday” three times due to radio interference and noise. This repetition helps operators identify it as a distress call.

During emergencies, pilots are advised to provide specific information in a particular order to help responders understand the situation. This includes details like the aircraft’s call sign, type, kind of emergency, weather, intentions, position, altitude, fuel remaining, and the number of people onboard.

Using the mayday signal is crucial, so it’s generally reserved for real emergencies. However, the Coast Guard sometimes receives hoax calls, which can waste resources and money. Those who misuse the mayday system can face severe penalties, including imprisonment and fines of up to 10 years and fined $250,000.

Why is Mayday said 3 times?

In radio communication protocols, “mayday” is typically repeated three times to ensure clarity and urgency. Saying “mayday” three times helps to distinguish it from other communications and alerts operators that a serious emergency is occurring.

Repeating “mayday” three times also helps to overcome potential interference or misunderstanding, especially in situations where communication may be distorted or limited. By repeating the distress call, the urgency of the situation is emphasized, increasing the likelihood of a swift and appropriate response from nearby vessels, aircraft, or emergency services.

Overall, the repetition of “mayday” three times is a standard practice designed to ensure that distress calls are unmistakably recognized and acted upon promptly in emergency situations.


Was there any distress call before mayday?

Before the adoption of “mayday” as the standardized distress call, various other phrases and signals were used to communicate emergencies, but there wasn’t a globally recognized and standardized distress signal.

For example, in maritime communication, phrases such as “SOS” (which doesn’t stand for anything specific but was chosen for its easy Morse code representation: three dots, three dashes, three dots) and “CQD” (which stands for “Come Quick, Danger”) were used. However, these signals lacked universality and were gradually replaced by “mayday” after its introduction in the early 20th century.

Similarly, in aviation, pilots used different phrases to communicate distress, such as “help” or “emergency.” However, the lack of a standardized distress signal led to confusion and delays in response.

The introduction of “mayday” provided a clear and universally understood distress call for both maritime and aviation emergencies, significantly improving communication and response to life-threatening situations.

In conclusion

The adoption of “mayday” as a universal distress signal represents a significant milestone in the history of emergency communication. From its humble beginnings in the early 20th century to its widespread acceptance today, “mayday” has saved countless lives by enabling swift and effective responses to emergencies in the air and at sea. While the misuse of distress signals remains a concern, the importance of adhering to established protocols cannot be overstated. As technology continues to advance, the legacy of “mayday” serves as a reminder of the critical role communication plays in ensuring safety and saving lives in times of crisis.

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