Understanding and Executing IFR Holding Procedures

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When controllers anticipate a delay at a clearance limit or fix, usually due to a high volume of traffic, weather, or both, pilots are usually issued a holding clearance. If the holding pattern assigned by ATC is charted, pilots are expected to hold as indicated. Patterns at the most generally used holding fixes are charted on Low or High Altitude En Route, Area, Departure Procedure, and Arrival Charts. When ATC issues a clearance requiring you to hold at a fix where a holding pattern is not charted, pilots are issued complete holding instructions. The holding instructions will include:

  • the direction from the fix
  • name of the fix, course
  • leg length (if distance instead of time)
  • direction of turns (if left turns are required)
  • the expect further clearance (EFC) time.

Let’s look at holding clearance example below to identify the various components (note the absence of turn direction indicates standard, right hand turns are expected):

Hold north (direction from the fix) of Volunteer on the 360 degree radial (name of VOR fix and course), five mile legs (leg length), expect further clearance at 15:50 zulu (EFC) time now, 15:40 zulu (current time is often issued as a courtesy so that pilots quickly know how long they may have to hold for fuel planning purposes).

Pilots are required to maintain the last assigned altitude unless a new altitude is specifically included in the holding clearance. Pilots are expected to hold on the inbound course using right turns unless instructed otherwide. In the example instructions above, the INBOUND course would be 180 degrees if holding on the 360 degree radial.

When executing a holding pattern above 14,000 feet, the inbound leg should be 1.5 minutes in duration. When at or below 14,000 feet, the inbound leg should be 1 minute.  Timing of the outbound leg should begin abeam the holding fix or at the completion of the turn. Fly the first outbound leg at the appropriate standard duration, then adjust subsequent outbound legs so as to make the inbound leg the standard 1 or 1.5 minute duration. This will vary with wind.

holding pattern timing

Timing of the holding pattern should be adjusted on the outbound leg so that the inbound leg will be the standard duration.

GPS-equipped aircraft have some additional options for holding. Rather than being based on time, the leg lengths for GPS holding patterns are based on distances. The controller, or the applicable chart, specifies the length of the outbound leg. The end of the outbound leg is determined by the distance.

charted holding procedure

Charted holding procedure on the low altitude enroute chart with 5 mile legs specified.

Because the size of the holding pattern is directly proportional to the speed of the aircraft, maximum holding speeds in knots indicated airspeed (KIAS) have been designated for specific altitude ranges. Often pilots can avoid flying a holding pattern or reduce the length of time spent in the holding pattern, by slowing down on the way to the holding fix.

holding speeds

Maximum holding speeds in knots indicated.

Turns in the hold should be standard rate, but not more than 30 degrees. If you are using a flight director, the maximum bank angle is 25 degrees. Except when turning, you should compensate for the wind. Outbound you should triple the wind correction angle used to track the inbound course. This will distort the racetrack shape, but keep you inside the holding pattern protected airspace.

holding pattern wind correction

The racetrack pattern will be distored with appropriate wind correction.

The protected airspace is not charted, but it is shaped somewhat like and centered upon the holding pattern. This puts about 60% of the protected area on the holding side, so the majority of your maneuvering should be on this side.

holding protected airspace

The majority of your maneuvering should be on the hodling side as this is where the majority of the protected airspace exists.

Holding protected airspace is designed based in part on pilot compliance with three recommended holding pattern entry procedures.

Parallel Procedure. When approaching the holding fix from parrell sector, the parallel entry procedure would be to turn to a heading to parallel the holding course outbound on the nonholding side for one minute, turn in the direction of the holding pattern through more than 180 degrees, and return to the holding fix or intercept the holding course inbound.

parallel hold entry

When approaching the holding fix from anywhere in the teardrop sector, the teardrop entry procedure would be to fly to the fix, turn outbound to a heading for a 30 degree teardrop entry within the pattern (on the holding side) for a period of one minute, then turn in the direction of the holding pattern to intercept the inbound holding course.

teardrop entry

When approaching the holding fix from anywhere in the direct sector, the direct entry procedure would be to fly directly to the fix and turn to follow the holding pattern.

To help determine which sector you fall within when approaching a holding fix, look at where the outbound course falls on your heading indicator or H-S-I when flying direct to the fix.  Divide the indicator into three segments as depicted below. And for a standard right-turn hold, and you can visualize exactly what kind of entry is expected.

holding entry procedure

You can visualize exactly what kind of entry is expected when placing the outbound course on the heading indicator when flying direct to the fix.

The teardrop section is the smallest, only 70 degrees on the right of the nose.  At the fix, turn to a heading 30 degrees from the outbound course toward the holding side for one minute.  Then turn in the direction of the holding pattern to intercept the holding course.

The direct entry section is the largest, covering a 180-degree arc.  Simply turn right outbound and fly the pattern.

The parallel segment is 110 degrees to the left of the nose.  Turn to the outbound heading, correct for wind if known, fly for one minute, and then turn toward the holding pattern more than 180 degrees.  Return to the holding fix or intercept the holding course inbound.

This method of visualizing the outbound course on the heading indicator is also referred to as the “thumb” method because placing your thumb to the right (for right-hand turns) or the left (for left-hand turns) will approximate the teardrop entry area as decpicted below.

thumb method hold entry

Placing your thumb to the left or right of your current heading can help identify the correct holding entry procedure.

A non-standard holding pattern uses left turns, and the entry procedure diagram has to be flipped so the teardrop section is in the upper left.  For non-standard left turns, use your left thumb to mark the 70-degree teardrop section, and the remaining sections fall into place.  Right turns, right thumb.

left-hand turn holding entry

The entry procedure diagram has to be flipped so the teardrop section is in the upper left for left hand turns

It’s worth noting that modern GPS navigators can be programmed for holding procedures and coupled with an autopilot, can also fully execute a hold. There are also devices available to help determine the correct entry.

Are you ready to practice? Test your holding pattern entry knowledge in this interactive holding exercise from Sporty’s Instrument Rating Course.

Eric Radtke