Origin of the Mayday Distress Call

Source: Wikipedia

The Mayday call is one of the most widely recognized expressions of distress and danger, but its origins are more complicated than one might think.

May 1st is internationally recognized as May Day. So to honor this holiday, let's talk about another international symbol, the Mayday distress call. The Mayday call is one of the most widely recognized expressions of distress and danger. It has become such a pervasive part of the popular culture that the Mayday can be found in both the far future and the distant past. But where did the call come from and why has it become so famous? The answer to that question is more complicated than you might think!

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Why Call Distress?

Signal Flags aboard the USS Quincy at the Battle of Savo Island. Source: Navsource
Signal Flags aboard the USS Quincy at the Battle of Savo Island. Source: Navsource

Let’s start with the basics, what are distress calls and where do they come from? For thousands of years ships have plied the oceans and never needed a call or spoken word to convey distress or damage. The reason for this is simple, any ship close enough to see the message would also see the condition of the foundering vessel. In the 18th and 19th century, the majority of messages were sent from ship to ship based on flags and semaphores, which could encompass a large number of extremely complicated messages.

By reading the sailing flags, nearby ships can ascertain their status at a glance. All this changed in the latter years of the 19th with the invention of the Marconi wireless telegraph. Ships could suddenly communicate with each other across hundreds or thousands of miles of open ocean. These converstations, and the limitations of telegraph technology, meant that ship operators across the world had to invent a whole new language for ship to ship communication. Morse code uses binary tones, short dots or long dashes, to form letters and numbers, which in turn build words and sentences.

But the fundamental problem with Morse code is that the longer the message becomes, the more chance there is for errors and misunderstanding. As an example, a message like “I am taking on water and am in danger of sinking,” while accurate, consists of 82 separate tones.

Universal Distress Code

To simplify these messages, European countries signed a series of international agreements in the first decade of the 20th century to standardize a Morse code shorthand. These terms were made up of a repeating series of two or three letter codes which signified a ship's status.

One of the earliest was the emergency distress code “CQD.” Many believe the letters make up an acronym such as “Come Quick-Danger,” but it’s not so. The CQ is an onomatopoeia for the French word sécurité, which can be translated variously as security, attention, or distress, with D as a modifier adding urgency to the previous code.

The Titanic, pre-iceberg collision. Source: History101
The Titanic, pre-iceberg collision. Source: History101

However, there was a problem with this early distress call, which is that those letters in the combination are both long, eleven separate tones, and too similar to other tone codes. Within five years, a new tone code was established which fixed these problems, the famous “SOS.” The letters don’t stand in for any fancy French words, but it was chosen based solely on its constituent letters, which are made up of nine tones, three consecutive dots, three consecutive dashes, and three more consecutive dots (…---…).

Both of these calls were made famous in 1912 during the wreck of the Titanic. After the ship struck the iceberg, radiomen began signaling CQD to alert nearby ships. However, after receiving no immediate response, one operator suggested to the other that they start to signal SOS, reportedly saying that “this may be the only time you'll get to use the new code.”

Note two things in this clip: how quickly Morse code messages can be typed out, and how punchy the final SOS call in in comparison to the other indistinct CQD calls.

What's the Deal with Mayday?

Military Style telegraph key. Source: KR7W (YouTube)
Military Style telegraph key. Source: KR7W (YouTube)

Morse was well and good for the days of the telegraph, but as radio technology evolved, sailors and airmen increasingly sent voice transmissions. The old CQD and SOS distress codes became unwieldy when spoken verbally. To make matters worse, early aircraft were often noisy places with exposed, open-air cockpits. The last thing a pilot in distress needed was to have his call misread.

So, a new code was invented, one which was easy to say and clear over any radio condition. It was our heroic Mayday. Like with CQD, this term had its origins in French as an abbreviation of the phrase venez m'aider, translated as “come and help me.” But Mayday also had other advantages. Thinking again in terms of tonal sounds, Mayday was a two syllable word which gave it an advantage over saying all three letters in SOS or CQD. Additionally, each of Mayday's syllables lead with hard consonant sounds which cannot be confused for one another. So as a phrase Mayday can carry a clear and consistent message to any listener.

This is why Mayday took over in the age of direct voice communications. Whenever a ship and its crew find themselves in a dangerous situation, they can lead every message with either two or three calls for Mayday. This tells all listeners that the following message will contain urgent, life-or-death information and that they have to drop everything to provide assistance to this distraught crew.

Mayday provides in two sounds a clear and distinct message about the status of a ship, her crew, and the urgency of their situation. Similar vocal codes exist to share other kinds of information, such as “Pan-Pan,” which also signals distress. But unlike Mayday, a ship signaling Pan-Pan is telling the world that they are experience difficulties, but that these problems are not life and death. It may mean a mechanical breakdown or a non-serious medical situation. Mayday, on the other hand, is the naval equivalent of dialing 911. Anybody who broadcasts a Mayday is telling the world to come running, their lives are in danger.

Famous Mayday Calls

Death 23: In her memoirs, Charlotte Madison, the first female British Apache helicopter pilot, tells the story of one unique mayday incident. In Kandahar, Afghanistan, she and her co-pilot were awaiting takeoff when an American pilot made a Mayday call and indicated that his plane had just crash landed a few miles off base. Recognizing the danger of the situation, Madison immediately offered to take off and provide security for the wreck. She and Air Traffic Control were both perplexed when the American pilot refused all offers for help or security. He said it was unnecessary because he had no crew to protect. It turns out Death 23 was not a fighter jet, but actually a UAV drone.

TransAsia Flight 235 hitting a highway overpass. Source: CNN
TransAsia Flight 235 hitting a highway overpass. Source: CNN

TransAsia Flight 235: On a cold February morning, TransAsia 235 took off from an airstrip in Taiwan's capital Taipei. The flight, bound for an island just off the Chinese mainland, immediately experienced engine trouble with its #2 engine. Misdiagnosing the problem, the pilots shut off the still function #1 engine and issued a Mayday, describing the problem as an "engine flameout." This was a fatal error as the plane, operating on one damaged engine, rolled over on one wing and rapidly lost altitude. As the plane made its final approach for a crash landing in the Keelung River, it clipped a highway overpass. This collision was famously caught by a nearby dashcam. Forty-eight of the flight's fifty-eight passengers were killed in the crash.

USS Indianapolis Disaster: On June 30th, 1945 World War II was almost over. Germany had surrendered, Japan was on its last leg, and American forces were preparing to deliver the coup de grace. The USS Indianapolis had just set sail from Guam, where she had just completed a secret mission to end the war. Its cargo had been some of the last key components of the two atomic bombs, which thanks to its delivery were now operational. From Guam, the cruiser was supposed to make for the main fleet at Leyte Gulf, but it never made it. Two Japanese torpedoes sent the Indianapolis and three hundred sailors under immediately. For the next three and a half days, her remaining six hundred sailors bobbed in the open ocean. Hundreds more drowned, a process made worse by continued exposure to the sun, the elements, and food contaminated by salt water. However, there were bigger dangers, as the loss of the Indianapolis created the conditions for the largest single shark attack against humans in history. By the time the crew was rescued three days later, only 316 of the ships 900 crew members were still alive. Although the Indianapolis made multiple Mayday calls in her final hours, the Navy suggested that they were never been received. In the subsequent court of inquiry, the Navy revealed that nearby radio stations had heard the Indianapolis' cries for help, but commanders believed that it was a Japanese trap aimed at sinking would be rescuers. Therefore, her calls went unheeded until survivors were spotted by air days later.

Contributing Editor

B.T. Graves lives far from the sea amidst the trees and the hills. He spends every night at home with his two cats in a soft leather chair reading about great captains and legendary battles while he dreams of the salty sting of the ocean air.