Aviation Rules of the Road

With a certain aircraft collision making news recently, I am curious about the aviation rules of the road, particularly in international airspace.

I’m quite familiar with the Navigation Rules (Huge PDF file from USCG website), which are based on an international treaty, the 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Prevention of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS).

Under the COLREGS, in an overtaking situation, defined as one where a vessel is approaching another from more than 22.5 degrees abaft the beam, the overtaking vessel is required to keep clear of the overtaken vessel (International Rule 13). I believe that if the air collision off of China was between two sea vessels in international waters, the Chinese fighter would be considered to be at fault, because it was approaching the US plane from the rear.

My question is what are the aviation rules of the road for a situations like this? Also, is there a compilation of the aviation rules somewhere handy?

(So as to avoid turning this into a Great Debate, I’m interested in the rules for general situations where one aircraft is following another, and perhaps what happens if one of them maneuvers unexpectedly. Speculation on fault for what actually happened off the Chinese coast should go elsewhere.)

In general, as applied to the current international incident and similar circumstances, the overtaking aircraft has a duty to maintain a safe separation. Also, the more maneuverable aircraft is generally tasked with avoiding collisions. Military situations pretty much put the rules aside, but an intercept in international airspace doesn’t qualify as a “military situation”, except under very limited circumstances.

For the definitive rules, you need to look no further than: http://www.faa.gov/avr/AFS/FARS/far_idx.htm

These are the Federal Aviation Regulations issued by the FAA. In particular, you will be interested in Parts 91 - 93. Parts 91.111 and 91.113, for example, give some of the right-of-way rules applicable in general aviation.

For those of you who don’t want to do the actual slogging through the legalistic language of the actual regulations (found in Federal Aviation Regulations Part 91 - available on the web, in local libraries, and frequently (though not alwasy) found on sale at larger bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders):

When one aircraft is overtaking another, the one being overtaken has right of way.

When two aircraft are converging, the one on the right has right of way.

When two aircraft are converging head-on, both give way to their respective right.

There’s a bunch of other stuff about landing, conflicts between various types of aircraft, and so forth, but the above is what is applicable to the recent China-US collision.

So, since the Chinese jet was overtaking the US plane from the rear, and on the left, the US plane would have right of way under two of the above rules. However, we are talking about military operations here, which don’t always follow civilian rules. For instance, if a civilian pilot in the US wanders into US military airspace and gets run over by a military jet that’s just too bad - a civilian pilot is supposed to know where he or she is at all times, the military airspace areas are well-defined and marked on navigation maps, and if you call the Flight Service Station for weather they’ll even remind you about them and, if they’re the sort civilians are allowed to use when not filled with military hardware, tell you if they’re active (not a good idea to enter) or not active (in which case go ahead and cross the airspace). If you decide you really, really have to enter such airspace when jets are playing it is up to YOU to see and avoid them, not them, regardless of who is overtaking or converging on whom.

So, we have a US spy plane spying on China, which sends a pair of military jets to intercept, and God alone knows what the orders are to each aircrew in this situation. Did the US plane delibrately ram an escorting Chinese jet? Right of way rules do not give you the right to use said rules to bully other people (says so, right in the regs). Did the Chinese jet get too close or misjudge what he was doing? Did both sides screw up, making for a true JANFU? (Joint Army-Navy Fuck Up)

Me, I’m much more worried about the end result of posturing politicians that who exactly did wrong here.