Halfway through the new movie World War Z, the captain of a transport aircraft preparing to land at Cardiff, Wales, broadcasts “pan, pan, pan” over the radio while Brad Pitt battles zombies in the fuselage. What the…?
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the proper call is “pan pan, pan pan, pan pan.” As opposed to “Mayday,” which the crew transmits when an aircraft is in hair-raising danger, pan-pan (from the French panne, for breakdown) means “We’re not exactly crashing yet, but things are not going well.” In the movie, smoke was streaming from one engine and Pitt was about to trigger a hand grenade so the marauding zombies would get sucked out of the fuselage—so, yeah, not going well at all.
Pan-pan is one of those dorky phrases you learn in ground school, like “wilco” (short for “will comply),” that you’d sooner die than utter over the radio for your fellow pilots to hear. However, the crews of Swissair Flight 111, Qantas Flights QF-74 and QF-72, and Air Berlin Flight 9721 wisely radioed the distress call when push came to shove.