Holding Patterns – What They are and How to Fly Them

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    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.”

    For pilots pursuing an instrument rating, learning holding patterns is a required part of training and their regular practice will be an ongoing part of an aviation career. 

    Why Pilots Fly Holding Patterns 

    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.

    Both the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) and Instrument Procedures Handbook contain substantial information about holding patterns.  

    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.

    A hold-in-lieu-of procedure turn is a required maneuver when it is depicted on the approach chart, such as at JETBI on the RNAV (GPS) 17 in Durant, OK.

    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).

    Examples of numerous arrival holds can be seen on the WESAT arrival into Fort Worth, TX. 

    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.

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

    However, a missed approach is not required to terminate with a holding procedure such as the ILS, RNP, and GPS to runway 20R at John Wayne/Santa Ana (SNA), all of which feature missed approaches without a hold. 

    Copying Holding Instructions 

    It is the responsibility of ATC to issue 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, and 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.

    The AIM (5-3-3) specifies that pilots are required to report the time and altitude when entering a hold along with leaving a hold (notification only, no time or altitude required).

    Holding Pattern Entries – Direct, Parallel, and Teardrop 

    Many instrument students are concerned about how to determine which holding pattern entry to use.

    While there are a number of apps, calculators, and even a popular “thumb method,” pilots should be able to quickly calculate a holding pattern entry given the facts from ATC, without taking their hands and eyes off the controls and flight instruments. Direct entries (from area C) allow the pilot to simply begin the hold upon arriving at the fix.

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

    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.

    Standard Pattern

    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.

    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 Pattern Speeds 

    Though exceeding them is unlikely in any trainer aircraft, instrument students should be familiar with all applicable maximum holding speeds. In the US, speed limits are based on 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.

    These 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 speed must begin slowing to be below the maximum speed three minutes prior to the fix. Note that US speeds differ from speeds established by ICAO 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.

    Learning this art is a major part of flight training for instrument students learning holding procedures, but be aware many ‘real world’ holds are based on distance since a one-minute hold for a Piper Archer at 90 knots would physically be much smaller than the same one minute hold in an Airbus doing 220 knots, for example.

    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 

    Instrument-rated pilots are required to perform “holding procedures and tasks” at least every six months to maintain currency under Part 61.57(C).

    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.”

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