Cessna 172 Flying

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.”

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.

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.

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, 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.

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.

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.”

Want to become a more confident pilot?

Subscribe to our YouTube Channel where we post FREE content to help student pilots understand the art of aviation.

Be entertained and educated on our TikTok channel.

Check out our LinkedIn where we share valuable insight and news for all aviation lovers.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *