Isn’t Side Stepping Straight-Forward?

You’re on base leg and you notice a white Cessna sitting at the hold short for the landing runway.  As you round the corner and enter short final, the Cessna taxies forward to take the runway.  You immediately hit the throttle, pull the nose up to the horizon to accelerate and then raise it slightly to climb as you do, raise the flaps a notch, and announce on the radio that you’re going around.  You’re about to overfly the conflicting aircraft; so, in the name of safety, you decide to sidestep.  But which way do you go?

I overheard a debrief where this was being discussed and the student was being told that he could pick either side. And that seems to be borne out by this statement from the Airplane Flying Handbookon page 12-18: “If the go-around was initiated due to conflicting traffic on the ground or aloft, the pilot should maneuver to the side so as to keep the conflicting traffic in sight. This may involve a shallow bank turn to offset and then parallel the runway/landing area.”   The direction of the sidestep…indicated by the shallow bank turn…is not specified.

What I had been taught and always understood was that you sidestepped to the right.  I still believe that to be the best move for a couple of reasons.  First, most pilots sit on the left side of the cockpit in this country, so sidestepping to the right generally gives one the best opportunity to observe the conflicting traffic.  But a better reason is what FAR 91.113 (f) says about what’s legal when overtaking another aircraft: “Each aircraft being overtaken has the right of way and each pilot of an overtaking aircraft shall alter course to the right to pass well clear”.

I found a forum discussion where another CFI claimed that the rule applied only to actions taken in flight and therefore didn’t apply in the pattern.  I could buy that if it weren’t for this quote from Advisory Circular 90-66B “Non-Towered Airport Flight Operations” : “Throughout the traffic pattern, right-of-way rules apply as stated in § 91.113.”

Standard traffic patterns at non-towered fields use left hand turns; side stepping to the right puts you on the side opposite to the direction the aircraft will turn if it is remaining in the pattern.

Of course, Advisory Circulars are not regulatory in nature and only provide recommended practices.  But it shows you what the FAA thinking is.  Doing something else may be perfectly fine but it also may subject you to a violation.  I have read of cases where pilots were prosecuted for overflying..buzzing another aircraft, specifically..and they quoted the overtaking provision I quoted as rationale for prosecution.

The other thing to note is that the Advisory Circular applies to non-towered airport operations.  While I’ve never had a controller issue me a go-around command with a sidestep direction, if they give you one, you are under an obligation to do as commanded unless you are unable for some reason. 

But whatever you do, don’t overfly another airplane on the runway.  The FAA considers it bad form; and it could ruin your day if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.