There are 3 emergency transponder codes that every pilot worldwide must know.

These codes are 7500 for hijackings, 7600 for communication failure, and 7700 for all other emergencies.

Pilots transmit these codes using a transponder device, which sends a signal to air traffic control (ATC).

Air traffic control then provides the pilot with guidance and alerts other nearby aircraft to maintain distance from the plane squawking the code.

There are also many non-emergency transponder codes used for other purposes.

Since every country has its own non-emergency transponder codes, pilots are assigned codes for each airspace before a flight. 

3 Emergency Transponder Codes

A transponder is a communication device on a plane that communicates with Air Traffic Control (ATC).

There are 3 emergency transponder codes.

Each code is used for a different emergency. 

1. 7500 – Hijacking

The 7500 transponder code sends a silent alert to the ATC that the plane has been hijacked without alerting the hijacker.

The usual response to the 7500 transponder code is to scramble fighter jets to escort the plane to a base. 

Pilots also normally have to confirm a hijacking with ATC and must comply with ATC instructions. 

2. 7600 – Lost Radio/ Communications

Pilots set the 7600 code on their transponders if their onboard radio stops working.

The 7600 code alerts the ATC that a plane cannot communicate with them.

The ATC responds by informing other nearby planes of the situation and instructs them to avoid the plane suffering communication failure to avoid potential collisions. 

The pilot of the plane suffering communication failure will remain on high alert, especially if they’re heading to a busy airport, to avoid potential collisions.

The pilot will very cautiously land the plane since they can’t communicate with other planes or the ATC. 

3. 7700 – General Emergency

The 7700 code is used for emergencies other than hijackings or communication failures.

Common emergencies for this code include: 

  1. Engine failure 
  2. Fuel emergency
  3. Landing gear problems 
  4. Flight control problems 
  5. Pressurization issues 
  6. Fires

Issuing this transponder code will alert nearby air traffic controllers, who’ll provide assistance to the pilot based on the emergency.

Real-Life Examples of Emergency Transponder Code Usage

On September 11, 2001, the Korean Air Flight 085 pilot accidentally typed the letters “HJK” to ATC after being informed of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The ATC instructed the pilot to change their transponder code to 7500 to confirm a hijacking, which the pilot mistakenly complied with. 

The flight was escorted by two F-15 fighter jets and diverted to land in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, from its original destination of Alaska, USA.

Once the plane landed, the authorities discovered it was a false alarm. 

In 2021, an Air France flight from Paris to Nantes squawked the 7700 code due to a cabin pressurization issue and was instructed to return to Paris only 50 minutes after take-off by the ATC. 

How to Remember Emergency Transponder Codes Easily

Transponder codes can be easily remembered using the following rhymes. 

  • 7500 (Hijacking): Let the other guy drive.
  • 7600 (Broken radio): Plane needs a fix.
  • 7700 (All other emergencies): Going to heaven. 

There Are Over 50 Transponder Codes

The United States has over 50 transponder codes, while the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has 6, including the 7500, 7500, 7700 codes.

Every country has its own allocated transponder codes, with few being shared across borders.

Pilots are allocated codes by air traffic control for each flight. 

Examples of Non-Emergency Transponder Codes

Some examples of non-emergency transponder codes include:

  • 1200: This code is for a plane flying under Visual Flight Rules (VFR). 
  • 1255: 1255 is for when the plane is not in contact with ATC while to or from firefighting areas. 
  • 2000: 2000 is used when a plane enters a secondary surveillance radar (SSR) area from a non-SSR area. 

Difference Between a Transponder Code & Squawk Code

The terms transponder code and squawk code are generally used interchangeably.

The transponder is the device a code is punched in, and the word ‘squawk’ refers to the communication from the aircraft’s transponder. 

Not All Planes have Transponders

The vast majority of planes have transponders.

Some small planes aren’t required to have transponders to operate in certain airspace or at specific altitudes.

For example, the FAA requires aircraft to have a Mode-S transponder-based ADS-B transmitter to fly at 18,000 feet. 

How Aircraft Transponders Work

The pilot enters the 4-digit code assigned to them by the ATC into the transponder.

The ATC radar screen identifies the aircraft via the 4-digit code, which is transmitted through the secondary surveillance radar. 

The air traffic controller then views the blip on their primary radar screen and provides directions to the pilot.

The radar only informs the air traffic controller of the plane’s distance and bearing. 

More modern transponders let the transmitting aircraft identify other nearby aircraft and alert them of the emergency, so they maintain distance. 

In conclusion:

  • Pilots use emergency transponder codes to alert air traffic control of emergencies.
  • The 3 main transponder codes are 7500 for hijacking, 7600 for lost radio communication, and 7700 for all other emergencies.
  • Pilots set the emergency codes on their transponders, transmitting the signal to nearby air traffic control towers.
  • The ATC then provides the pilot with guidance depending on their emergency.
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