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Holding Patterns – What They are and How to Fly Them




The term “holding pattern” is probably the aviation term most often borrowed by non-aviators – the phrase is even included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a “state of waiting.”

What is a Holding Pattern 

Holding patterns are a way for Air Traffic Control (ATC) to delay an aircraft from proceeding on course.

This can be due to any number of reasons but commonly involve traffic congestion, poor weather, or an aircraft or airfield emergency delaying use of a runway. For instrument students, holding patterns are performed as part of training.

In real-life flying, pilots may enter holding patterns in three common scenarios: 

Holding in Lieu of a Procedure Turn

It is common for aircraft to need to perform a course reversal to establish an approach to an airport where radar vectoring is not available.

Holding Patterns

Arrival Holding Pattern

Standard Terminal Arrival Route  (STAR) charts may have one or multiple holding patterns depicted along the procedure.

The arrival hold is depicted using a thin line since it is not a mandatory part of the instrument procedure (and should not be flown without specific ATC instruction).

Missed Approach Holding Patterns

Most instrument approach charts depict a holding pattern to be flown following the execution of a missed approach. The published missed approach should be flown unless ATC provides other instructions. (Need help with your ATC communications? Check out these helpful tips on how to communicate with ATC).

The procedure normally includes an initial heading or course to follow, an altitude to climb to, and holding instructions at a nearby fix. 

Copying Holding Instructions 

Complete instructions would include:

  • The holding fix
  • Hold direction
  • Inbound or outbound course
  • Direction of turns
  • Time or distance for the inbound leg
  • Time to expect further clearance (EFC)

However, for brevity ATC may omit all of the holding instructions except direction if the hold is published. Pilots can always request full instructions if needed.

Holding Pattern Entries – Direct, Parallel, and Teardrop 

Many instrument students are concerned about how to pick holding pattern entries.

While there are a number of apps, calculators, and even a popular “thumb method,” pilots should be able to quickly calculate holding pattern entries given the facts from ATC. And do so without taking their hands and eyes off the controls and flight instruments.

Standard Pattern

Direct entries (from area C) allow the pilot to simply begin the hold upon arriving at the fix.

Teardrop entries (area B) have the pilot set a generally 30 degree offset after passing the fix, track outbound an appropriate length of time, then turn inbound to join the hold.

Parallel entries (area A) have the pilot parallel the course outbound before making a turn back to rejoin the course. These three entries are standard but are not regulatory in the US, and pilots are not forced to use one versus the other based solely on their course when arriving at the holding fix.

However, protected airspace is based on these entries and appropriate speeds.

ASA Holding Pattern Computer

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Holding at Non-Published Fixes

Holds can be done at a variety of fixes which can provide valuable training experience.

Examples include holding at a DME fix along a radial, along a radial when crossing another radial (an intersection hold), or along a localizer when passing a compass locator.

New student and need help talking to ATC? Check out our guide to common air traffic control communications every pilot should know.

Another valuable training tool is switching between multiple holds over a single fix, forcing the pilot to calculate different entries along with making appropriate wind adjustments in different patterns.

Holding Utilizing an HSI 

For many pilots, the HSI provides an easier-to-understand “top-down” display for holding than a standard CDI.

If your training fleet has both aircraft with and without an HSI, it’s great to get exposure to both for building the different mental pictures of holds along with other instrument procedures.

Holding Speeds 

Though exceeding them is unlikely in any trainer aircraft, instrument students should be familiar with all applicable max holding speeds.

FAA Holding Speeds and Altitudes

  • Minimum holding altitude (MHA) to 6,000 ft. MSL: 200 KIAS
  • 6,001 ft. MSL to 14,000 ft. MSL: 230 KIAS
  • Above 14,000 ft. MSL: 265 KIAS.

ICAO Holding Speeds and Altitudes

  • Minimum holding altitude (MHA) to 14,000 ft. MSL: 230 KIAS
  • 15,000 ft. MSL to 20,000 ft. MSL: 240 KIAS
  • 21,000 ft. MSL to 34,000 ft. MSL: 265 KIAS

These holding speeds may be lowered for specific holds and if so will be noted on the appropriate chart.

Pilots approaching a planned holding fix at a higher hold speed must begin slowing to be below the max holding speed three minutes prior to the fix.

Note that FAA holding speeds differ from ICAO holding speeds which are used by almost all other countries.

Holding Pattern Timing 

A standard holding pattern is based on a one-minute inbound leg to the holding fix (90 seconds above 14,000 ft. MSL), and the timing of the outbound leg should be adjusted to compensate as necessary for wind.

Common distances are five and 10 nautical mile inbound legs, both reducing the number of turns and the workload for pilots.

Holding with Advanced Avionics 

With the numerous advances in modern avionics, much of the manual work in holding has been automated. Pilots must still ensure holds are properly programmed and maintain situational awareness that the automation is performing properly.

In some systems, holds which are hard coded (part of a listed procedure) may not be editable, leading to scrambling if ATC assigns a minor change such as an adjustment of leg length.

Holding for Currency – and for Proficiency 

Though a simple hold may check that box, the relative infrequency of real-world holding for most pilots can lead to some surprises when one is received unexpectedly.

Maintaining situational awareness – where potential holds are, their various entry methods, and the procedures or techniques for setting them up in your particular aircraft – can ensure when a hold is received you are truly “ready to copy.”

What advice do you have for new students learning to fly a standard holding pattern?

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