Which Aircraft Has the Right of Way?

Naturally, there is no single rule on which aircraft has right of way.

The aviation environment is somewhat different to ground-based traffic, in that its rules of right of way are largely specific to the type of aircraft involved in any right of way situation.

In land terms, imagine a traffic circle where cyclists had right of way, then all motorbikes, then electric cars – all while petrol and diesel vehicles waited their turn to move.

There is a good and logical reason for this difference though – the aviation environment gives you no second chances.

The right of way rules are also divided into the circumstances of flying over land and flying over water.

The rules are fairly similar in each case, to avoid throwing pilots into unnecessary spirals of overthinking, but there are slight additional considerations when flying over water.

When Flying Over Land:

  1. Distress circumstances overrule everything, and obviously, any aircraft in distress has the right of way, as it may or may not be able to control its trajectory or speed. If an aircraft is in distress, all other aircraft in the vicinity are obliged to get out of its way as best they can.

  2. If aircraft of the same category are converging (unless head-on, or almost head-on), the aircraft that is to the right of the other has right of way.

  3. When aircraft of different categories are converging, the right of way is determined essentially on the basis of weight and ease of control. So a balloon has the right of way over everything else. Followed by a glider. Then an airship, which has right of way over even a powered parachute, as well as a weight-shift-control aircraft, airplane or rotorcraft.

  4. But – just when you thought you had the hang of things, an aircraft which is towing or refueling other aircraft has right of way over all other engine-driven aircraft.

  5. If the aircraft are approaching head-on or nearly head-on, there is no right of way. Both aircraft, on seeing each other, are obliged to alter course to the right.

When Flying Over Water:

  1. As over land, distress circumstances overrule everything else. Any aircraft in distress has the right of way over everything else, because of the potential unpredictability of its trajectory. Your job if you are not the aircraft in distress is not to assist, but to get as far out of the distressed aircraft’s way as you can, to give it less chance of a collision.

  2. If two or more aircraft of the same category are converging while heading in the same direction, the aircraft that is furthest to the right has right of way.

  3. Again, as with flight over land, when aircraft of different categories are converging while flying in the same direction, pay attention to the weight and power categories. Balloons have the right of way over everything else because their mechanism of control is least predictable. Then gliders. Then airships, and so on.

  4. Again, if you are piloting an engine-driven craft, always give way to an aircraft towing or refueling any other craft.

  5. If the aircraft are approaching head-on or nearly head-on, right of way becomes an irrelevant concept. Both aircraft, on seeing each other, should alter course to the right, and so do everything possible to avoid a collision.

  6. There is an additional, oddly vague rule that says that anyone operating an aircraft over water will do their utmost to keep clear of all vessels at all times.

  7. When flying over water, anyone in control of an airplane is to treat water-going vessels as if they were other airplanes as far as the rules are concerned – in the unlikely event of a near-collision, immediately steer right, away from the vessel.

    A minimum safe altitude should be maintained to allow for an emergency landing, which should automatically avoid any collision risks with oceangoing vessels, but still, wherever possible, aircraft should do their utmost to stay clear of the vessel.

How do you overtake a plane?

Overtaking a plane at first glance seems like a bad idea. That is mostly because we are used to overtaking within the context of cars, and the proximity, when applied to airplanes, is immediately frightening.

Needless to say, the proximity factor is nothing like that of cars when overtaking in airplanes. But just as there are simple rules of courtesy to safely complete the maneuver on the highway, so there are similar rules in the air.

  1. When piloting an airplane, if you are being overtaken, you have right of way.

  2. The overtaking vehicle is obliged by the rules to alter course to the right so that they overtake you at a safe distance.

  3. This rule is the same whether the overtaking maneuver takes place over land or sea.