Who has the Right-of-Way?

There are some simple rules governing the behavior of aircraft flying near each other. It is important to understand who has the right-of-way.

Distress

  • An aircraft in distress always has the right-of-way. Any aircraft undergoing an emergency, or that appears to be in an emergency condition, should be given the right-of-way.

By Category

  • Aircraft of different categories have simple rules to govern right-of-way. Remember that the less maneuverable aircraft has the right-of-way. Balloons have right-of-way over everything else because they just go where the wind takes them.
  • The next aircraft with priority is the glider. This is because it has no engine and is limited in its ability to stay airborne. This is especially important for landing and operations near an airport.
  • Next is an aircraft towing(or refueling) another aircraft (this will usually be a towplane pulling a glider). A towplane is certainly limited in maneuverability because of the needs of the glider behind.
  • An airship has the next highest priority over other types of powered aircraft.
  • Finally, the rest of the aircraft types are lumped in with no category getting more right-of-way than another.

I have heard some people say that helicopters need to give way to airplanes because they are more maneuverable but this is a myth. The misunderstanding is likely caused by 91.126(b)(2) which says “Each pilot of a helicopter or a powered parachute must avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft.”. Since 91.126 deals with airport operations this just means that helicopters and powered-parachutes need to stay out of the normal fixed-wing traffic pattern.

By Position

  • If the distress or category rules don’t clear up who has the right-of-way there are several rules regarding the aircraft’s position relative to each other.
  • The lowest altitude aircraft on final has the right-of-way over other aircraft in the air and on the surface. Read the full text of 91.126(g) below as there are some important clauses to keep you from taking advantage of this rule in underhanded ways.
  • If two aircraft are approaching head-on alter course to the right, quickly!
  • If you are overtaking another aircraft then the other aircraft has the right-of-way. Similarly, if you are being overtaken then you have the right-of-way. This is because the aircraft being overtaken has a much harder time seeing the overtaking aircraft.
  • If two aircraft are converging (not head-on) then the aircraft to the right has the right-of-way. This means that if you are to the left then you must alter course to get out of the other planes way.

Your Responsibilities

Know and understand these rules so that you know:

  • What you need to do
  • What to expect from other planes

However, do not assume that other pilots will always get this right. You can only control your own actions so be vigilant and watchful. If you are approaching head-on, turn right but verify that the other plane has not turned left!

  • Constantly look for other traffic
  • Be courteous
  • Don’t lose sight of nearby planes

FAR 91.113

§ 91.113 Right-of-way rules: Except water operations.

(a)Inapplicability. This section does not apply to the operation of an aircraft on water.

(b)General. When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted underinstrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft. When a rule of this section gives another aircraft the right-of-way, the pilot shall give way to that aircraft and may not pass over, under, or ahead of it unless well clear.

(c)In distress. An aircraft in distress has the right-of-way over all other air traffic.

(d)Converging. When aircraft of the same category are converging at approximately the same altitude (except head-on, or nearly so), the aircraft to the other’s right has the right-of-way. If the aircraft are of different categories –

(1) A balloon has the right-of-way over any other category of aircraft;

(2) A glider has the right-of-way over an airship, powered parachute, weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane, or rotorcraft.

(3) An airship has the right-of-way over a powered parachute, weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane, or rotorcraft.

However, an aircraft towing or refueling other aircraft has the right-of-way over all other engine-driven aircraft.

(e)Approaching head-on. When aircraft are approaching each other head-on, or nearly so, each pilot of each aircraft shall alter course to the right.

(f)Overtaking. Each aircraft that is being overtaken has the right-of-way and each pilot of an overtaking aircraft shall alter course to the right to pass well clear.

(g)Landing. Aircraft, while on final approach to land or while landing, have the right-of-way over other aircraft in flight or operating on the surface, except that they shall not take advantage of this rule to force an aircraft off the runway surface which has already landed and is attempting to make way for an aircraft on final approach. When two or more aircraft are approaching an airport for the purpose of landing, the aircraft at the lower altitude has the right-of-way, but it shall not take advantage of this rule to cut in front of another which is on final approach to land or to overtake that aircraft

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