Visual Flight Rules are the rules of the air that pilots have to adhere to that without special ratings enabling them to fly at night, low visibility and using only the instruments within their cockpit. Sometimes known as ‘recreational flying’, aircraft flying under VFR have to stick to a certain set of rules set out by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Flying under VFR means you have to stay within a certain distance of clouds and remain in constant visibility of the ground at all times. These aircraft tend to fly in non-controlled airspace where Air Traffic Control do not provide the pilot with instructions on routing and collision avoidance. Depending on the airspace type the aircraft is flying within, the pilot can receive certain information from ATC on other aircraft in the area but is ultimately responsible for collision avoidance themselves.
To avoid other aircraft, the pilot must be constantly looking out for other aircraft during their journey, hence the name ‘Visual Flight Rules’. When two aircraft are on a collision course, there are certain give way procedures pilots of VFR must use to avoid a collision. Much like the Highway Code on our roads, these rules are there to ensure the safety during flight.
Rights of way for different aircraft
There are four main types of aircraft; balloons, gliders, airships and powered aircraft. Each type of aeroplane has to give way to another depending on its method of thrust.
Conventionally powered aircraft have to give way to everything. Airships have to give way to balloons and gliders, gliders have to give way to balloons. Finally, balloons have very little means of manoeuvrability and therefore have right of way over all 3 other types of aircraft.
Rights of way for the same types of aircraft
When two aircraft of the same type are on a collision course there is a separate set of procedures to follow.
When two aircraft are flying head on, each must move to their right.
If two aircraft are at the same height and on converging courses, the aircraft with the other on its right-hand side (starboard side) has to give way.
Aircraft obviously fly at different speeds which you can see in the PlaneFinder app. Aircraft also sometimes fly along the same paths following navigational beacons. When they are not under air traffic control they need to be able to overtake one another. In this event, the faster-moving aircraft must overtake on the right-hand side, or starboard side, of the slower aeroplane.
Because avoiding action is all taken based on the principle of being able to see other aeroplanes, you can appreciate why it’s important for the respective pilots to be constantly aware of their surroundings and well away from clouds! This ability is a skill all pilots learn called ‘situational awareness’.
If you look carefully and spot VFR aircraft on the flight radar you’ll see these aircraft taking avoiding action. VFR aircraft within controlled airspace obviously have to do as instructed by Air Traffic Control, so you may also see VFR aircraft being vectored to different locations through controlled airspace.