Mayday, m’aider!

Did you know that the expression ‘mayday’ used as a distress signal comes from French? I did not, although I speak the language and have lived in this country for over twenty years.

Amazing what you learn watching television. I was glued to the news last night watching reports of the Germanwings plane crash in the southern French Alps. A former commercial pilot being interviewed on France 2 says that the mystery of this crash is the fact that there was no call of ‘Mayday, mayday, mayday’ – which must be repeated three times according to international protocol. And suddenly it clicks. Mayday is ‘m’aider’ – meaning ‘help me’ in the formal or infinitive form of the verb.

Like you, I am horrified by this crash. The loss of innocent life, the tragic fate of 150 people who took off for a short-haul flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf on Tuesday morning. Something that low-cost travel has made almost like a taking a bus for many Europeans today.

It is all the more shocking considering that the flight was operated by Germanwings, a low-cost affiliate of Lufthansa, one of the world’s safest and most technically reliable airlines.

Perhaps because it has happened here in France, I find myself obsessing about that 8-minute descent into oblivion. The strange trajectory of the crash into the worst possible mountainous region. The gut-wrenching fear of the passengers, the impossible news for the families, the courage of the crews who must sift through the debris for bodies at 1500 meters near Seynes-les-Alpes.

Like many, I’ve considered the possibility that it could be an act of terror. Suicide or a medical emergency is now looking likely with the discovery that one of the pilots was locked out of the cockpit just before the crash.

My thoughts are with the victims and their families, the hundreds of police and investigators trying to recover the bodies on treacherous terrain at high altitude.

And for anyone who has to get on a plane knowing that their worst fears could be just a ‘mayday’ away.


  1. cheergerm · March 26, 2015

    The Yak and I were just discussing the horror of this. Particularly knowing that a pilot was trying to kick the cockpit door down, if this is true, imagine the terror of all those passengers. So, so sad that a mayday or ‘help me’ was never sent.

    • MELewis · March 26, 2015

      My thoughts exactly. If this proves to be the case, it will hopefully lead to changes that prevent that much being given to one person on a plane – even the pilot.

  2. davidprosser · March 26, 2015

    I sincerely hope it wasn’t a suicide. I don’t mind if someone feels the need to end their own life, but those of 150 innocents too? Tragedies like this affect so many people, the ripples are felt round the world. I just hope they find a rational explanation that brings a kind if peace to the families and friends of those affected.
    I daresay there will be another drop in those using air travel which will have a knock on effect throughout the tourist industry.
    xxx Massive Hug Mel xxx

    • MELewis · March 26, 2015

      Right you are, David. Tragic on so many levels, if indeed this proves to be the case. But an explanation will be a relief to all concerned…and eventually provide some closure for the loved ones. Bises xx

  3. Mélanie · March 26, 2015

    mille merci, chère Mel… you did touch my heart… ❤ you know that I live in Toulouse aka Airbus City… we've been all deeply shaken by this human tragedy… RIP.
    * * *
    I did fly with Lufthansa's Germanwings several times and I'm ready to get on a plane any time, with no fear… I'm serious, lucide & réaliste, not fatalist. We were in the US during "9/11" and 3 days later, I took a plane from Houston to Toronto, Canada…

    • MELewis · March 26, 2015

      I admire your indomitable spirit, dear Mélanie! I always fly with fear as a companion – but won’t let it stop me. As for this human tragedy, we all have heavy hearts but at least you all in Airbus City can breathe a little easier. Bises xx

  4. Osyth · March 26, 2015

    Oddly with my Spanish Cow French I had worked out what MayDay came from a long time ago. But of course I can’t even begin to fathom the terrible last minutes of that plane, the horror of finding that someone you love was on it, the pain which now, will never leave those people nor how on earth the emergency services find the strength and courage to search the mountains for bodies amongst that shattered remain strewn and flung so far. I hope with all my heart that all those effected are given a reason why soon so that they can begin to build the shattered remains of their lives. Beautifully written as ever, Mel – thank you.

    • MELewis · March 26, 2015

      Chère Osyth, your comments are deeply appreciated as ever. Such things are completely unfathomable and hopefully will remain so for the majority of us. Bises xx

  5. David · March 26, 2015

    I did not realize that “Mayday” came from French until now. There is another term that I know of “Pan-pan” that is used similarly in a lesser emergency – a state of “urgency” as it is known.

    Curious, I googled it, and it turns out that there is an entire list of French phrases used in international air-sea rescue. More here:

    Tragic situation. Apparently there is a code that the pilot could use to re-enter the cockpit, but the pilot remaining inside the cockpit can temporarily disable it for a period of 5 minutes. Hopefully when all of the data from the two recorders is analyzed we will have the full story, but at the moment it does not appear to be mechanical failure.

    • MELewis · March 26, 2015

      Thanks, Dave. Very useful page and I will bookmark it! I hope they will reconsider the protocol for cockpit access in future to ensure that no single individual is ever left alone.

  6. · March 29, 2015

    Still reeling from this premeditated tragedy. On my flight back to the US, I was traveling with a group of 50 high school students, who had been in Rome to sing for the Pope. They sang for us twice during the flight. I can’t get them and those students, their parents and all the others who perished out of my mind…and those awful final 8 minutes…

    • MELewis · March 29, 2015

      How moving! Speaking of singers, there were two opera singers among the group. But it does help (a little) to know that they probably did not realize what was going on until those final couple of minutes. And then death was instantaneous. Not much, but you take the comfort you can.

  7. BigLizzy · April 14, 2015

    Oh, Mel, I’m late to this post, but wanted to say hello and tell you that the world still mourns because of this. We are all with the French in heart and spirit.

    My heart still hurts over this tragedy. I didn’t know the term May Day came from the French. It’s interesting how much overlap there is between various languages, but with Latin at the root of many, it makes sense, I guess.

    The only blessing I can draw from this is exactly what you said above, death was instantaneous. While they knew it was likely coming in the minutes leading up to the crash, few, if any, actually felt the end. RIP, brothers and sisters.

    Bises, mon ami!

    • MELewis · April 16, 2015

      Lizzy, great to hear from you! Thanks for stopping by, my dear, and checking in. Your point about Latin is well taken, and it is to my eternal regret that I did not study it in school. The heartbreak of that crash is still fresh yet somehow as we learn more about the pilot it has become easier to bear. As awful as it was, understanding the cause helps. Hope you’re well and keeping busy with your writing…have not seen many posts from BBB lately but will stop by soon! Biggest bises xxx

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