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Pilot CounselPilot Counsel

The right-of-way rulesThe right-of-way rules

Five important traffic situations
Five important traffic situations

John S. Yodice Last month, prompted by a National Transportation Safety Board alert with the sobering title: “See and Be Seen: Your Life Depends on It,” I reviewed the basic regulation that establishes the “see and avoid” regulatory concept. FAR 91.113 says, “When weather conditions permit, regardless of whether an operation is conducted under instrument flight rules or visual flight rules, vigilance shall be maintained by each person operating an aircraft so as to see and avoid other aircraft.”

I also briefly mentioned that there are a number of more specific operating and flight rules that are designed to supplement and enhance this general requirement.

This month I will start with a review of FAR 91.113, “Right-of-Way Rules: Except Water Operations.” This is a rule that most of us had to learn at least one point in our pilot training, and even then it was a challenge. It deserves periodic review. The structure of the rule is to assign specific rights-of-way in five traffic situations, and then to give the rule substance by saying that, “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.” The traffic situations are: “in distress,” “converging,” “approaching head-on,” “overtaking,” and “landing.”

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

Converging. When aircraft of the same category are converging at approximately the same altitude, the aircraft to the other’s right has the right-of-way. As a reminder, there are seven categories of aircraft: airplane, rotorcraft, glider, lighter-than-air, powered lift, powered parachute, and weight-shift-control aircraft. If the converging aircraft are of different categories, the right-of-way is given to the less maneuverable aircraft. A balloon has the right-of-way over any other category of aircraft; a glider has the right-of-way over an airship, powered parachute, weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane, or rotorcraft; an airship has the right-of-way over a powered parachute, weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane, or rotorcraft. An aircraft towing or refueling other aircraft has the right-of-way over all other engine-driven aircraft.

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.

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.

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 that 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.

One of the frequent questions asked regarding the right of way for landing aircraft is whether a straight-in approach is legal in light of FAR 91.126 and 127, which mandate the direction in which turns must be made in the traffic pattern of an airport without an operating control tower. A straight-in approach is allowed under these rules. It may not always be wise, but it is definitely legal. There is an important limitation established by precedent. We have an FAA enforcement case in which the NTSB ruled that aircraft making a straight-in approach at an airport without a control tower has what is essentially a right-of-way limitation to not interfere with aircraft in the traffic pattern or on an instrument approach.

An FAA enforcement case that I reported in this column in October 1994 showed that the “overtaking” and “converging” rules can operate simultaneously. It ruled that the pilots of two airplanes carrying skydivers, each racing the other to reach the same drop zone, can each be in violation of the right-of-way rules. It also ruled that even though the pilot of the aircraft being overtaken had the right of way, that pilot had the obligation to give way to the converging aircraft on the right. The pilot of the overtaken aircraft suffered a 90-day suspension of his commercial pilot certificate. The case held that his violation is not excusable because the other pilot may also have violated the right-of-way rules. There is no report of any enforcement action taken against the other pilot.

In summary then, the right-of-way rules are parts of the supplemental rules designed to help pilots “see and avoid” other traffic.


John S. Yodice can be contacted through AOPA’s Pilot Protection Services (PPS) program.

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