Airline pilots
Pilots use 7700 squawk codes to signal emergencies but claims of a recent increase aren't supported. Image by AP PHOTO

Link between vaccine and mayday calls is a flight of fancy

David Williams February 23, 2024

COVID-19 vaccines have caused a 386 per cent increase in mayday calls from pilots.


False. The data used for the claim is unreliable.There is no credible evidence of any such increase.

Posts on social media claim that there has been a 386 per cent increase in mayday “squawk” calls by pilots as a result of COVID-19 vaccines.

The claim has been pushed by a former Virgin pilot who has published a report that states “COVID-19 injectables into pilots are a disaster in the making!”

But the claims are false. The supposed 386 per cent increase is not based on like-for-like data. Additionally, statistics from Australia’s national transport safety investigator show no rise in mid-flight pilot incapacitations.

The claim is made in an interview between Maria Zeee, who has been repeatedly debunked by fact-checkers (examples here, here and here) and former Virgin airline pilot, Shane Murdock. Mr Murdock was sacked for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

The interview was previewed on Instagram and Facebook (archived here) with the claim that “Pilot of over 40 years, Captain Shane Murdock” would “expose a whopping 386% increase in Squawk 7700 (Mayday) calls in 2023, directly as a result of the COVID injections.”

Facebook post
 A post previews the claims made by former Virgin pilot Shane Murdock in an online interview. 

At 6min 45sec into the interview, Murdock refers to a graph of a “dramatic rise in declared emergencies in aviation globally” prepared by “a gentleman in the States”.

“He plotted it on a graph and the calendar year 2022, even though there was a substantial decrease in the amount of airline traffic globally — I think it was as much as 30 per cent — inversely there was a rise of 272 per cent of declared emergencies, globally. And in the first three months of 2023, that was showing 386 per cent,” Murdock says.

“This has clearly been the result of these jabs,” he added (11min 53sec), while also pointing to a report he authored called “Impending disaster in the global aviation industry”.

Squawk codes are four-digit codes given to pilots by air traffic control for communication. A Squawk 7700 indicates an emergency of any kind, such as mechanical or technical problems, and medical issues.

Page 8 of Murdock’s report has a graph indicating a rise in squawk 7700 alerts from around November 2021. He cites the figures as coming from “the Flight Alert Twitter account” which is “a bot that posts every time there is a squawk 7700 anywhere in the world”.

That text is a direct quote from a post from the @USFreedomFlyers X account, which also features the graphs shown in Murdock’s report. 

The post references the X account @GCFlightAlerts, which is a bot that records squawk 7700, 7600 (radio failure) and 7500 (hijacking) alerts.

 The number of feeders – the sensors detecting airline mayday calls – has increased in recent years. 

AAP FactCheck contacted the @GCFlightAlerts account but did not receive a response. 

A similar X account, @SquawkAlert identifies itself as a bot that tweets when aircraft squawk 7700 or 7600.

AAP FactCheck asked the owner of that account, who identified himself as “Max”, about Mr Murdock’s claim and graph in relation to the data on X.

He said his data was almost identical to that in the graph, with a variable of one tweet more or less per month. 

While he agreed there had been a trending increase in posts per month, he said the data was unsuitable to declare any global increase or decrease over time – let alone to deduce a reason for any rise or fall.

“The number of feeders (devices located all over the world that provide the data powering @SquawkAlert) has consistently increased,” Max said in an email.

He also said the number of aircraft equipped with modern transponders had also likely increased over the years. 

New regulations from the US Federal Aviation Administration and the European Union Aviation Safety Authority requiring more modern transponders that increased the visibility of aircraft on tracking websites had also possibly caused an increase in coverage and alerts, he added.

“In general I would not rely on statistics based on @SquawkAlert’s tweets to be accurate in any way,” Max said. “The bot was never meant to provide such data and cannot uphold any accuracy or reliability promises.”

“@SquawkAlert also cannot guarantee any correlation between its tweets and actual emergencies.”

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB), the country’s national transport safety investigator, does not collate all 7700 squawk data, as not all are considered transport safety issues – for example a passenger falling ill on a flight.

However, the ATSB does record instances of flight crew incapacitation.  As the graph above shows, there has been no increase in total incidents or serious incidents in 2022 or 2023 compared to pre-pandemic data.

The Verdict

The claim that COVID-19 vaccines have caused a 386 per cent increase in mayday calls from pilots is false.

The data used is not suitable for making claims about actual increases and decreases over time given the number of inputs have also increased.

Data from Australia's transport regulator reveals no increase in flight crew incapacitation from pre-pandemic years. 

False — The claim is inaccurate.

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