Pilot's tip of the week

Right-of-Way: Rules and Realities


Subscriber question:

"How do you handle this situation: You announce on a 45 to downwind and shortly after another airplane calls a five-mile final for the same runway? Who has the right-of-way in this situation?" — Randy C.


“14 CFR 91.113 says that 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.

So, it depends on the relative speed of the two aircraft. I would continue on the downwind until I had the aircraft on final in sight. I’d only turn base in front of the aircraft on final if I was certain there was more than enough room. Otherwise, I’d plan to follow.

If I didn’t have the aircraft on final in sight, or there was any doubt regarding the situation, I’d continue on the downwind while communicating on the advisory frequency (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency). You don’t necessarily have the right of way just because you’re the one flying in the traffic pattern.

What about the etiquette of a long, straight-in approach? Is it even acceptable, or should we always make a standard traffic pattern entry?

In Advisory Circular 90-66B, the FAA encourages pilots to use a standard traffic pattern when arriving or departing a non-towered airport. They also acknowledge there are situations where a pilot may choose a straight-in approach, a practice instrument approach for example. For jet aircraft with higher approach speeds, a straight-in is probably less likely to cause conflicts than flying the (typical jet) pattern that’s normally above and outside the pattern used by light GA aircraft.

In any case, communications and good visual scanning are key. Right-of-way rules only go so far. If you collide with another airplane, the fact that you had the right of way probably won’t improve your day.”

Do you think a straight-in approach is acceptable at non-towered airports when there are other aircraft in the traffic pattern?

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