If you’ve held the idea of holding as an intellectual exercise, performed only during practice flights, stress levels can rise as you quickly write down the clearance, figure out the VOR’s location, and think about the correct holding pattern entry procedure.
Maybe we should practice holding patterns more often. That’s because holding clearances can be issued for many reasons. Most often, it’s to create adequate spacing between IFR traffic in busy airspace, and not just in the en route phase of flight. Holding also can be used as you near your destination. Airplanes may even be cleared to hold at the same fix, but stacked at different altitudes. This is most likely to occur where low instrument meteorological conditions—ceilings below 500 feet, visibilities below one mile—mean strict ATC spacing and sequencing rules. As the airplane holding at the lowest altitude in the stack is cleared for the approach, those above it are cleared to descend and hold at progressively lower altitudes, until it’s their time to shoot an approach. Some call this “shaking the box.”
When the weather is above low IFR limits—ceilings 500 to 1,000 feet, visibilities between one and three miles—holding at feeder, initial, and even final approach fixes may also be used. Just be aware that there may be VFR traffic in or near the airport. The airport’s traffic pattern altitude could be below the ceiling, and experiencing visual meteorological conditions. Airplanes could legally be flying traffic patterns even though IFR arrivals are happening at the same time. To help prevent any nasty surprises as you descend on your straight-in IFR final approach course, it’s best to look for any ADS-B targets and listen to CTAF frequencies for the locations of any self-announcing traffic. Remember, ATC’s primary job is to separate aircraft on IFR flight plans, not work VFR traffic around instrument arrivals or departures.
Holding can be used as a substitute for a procedure turn outside an instrument approach’s final approach fix. This is called a hold in lieu of procedure turn, abbreviated HILPT. A quick look at the approach plate’s holding pattern symbology will tell you if you need to fly a HILPT. If the holding pattern’s racetrack is in bold, you must fly the holding pattern to reverse course—unless ATC clears you for a straight-in final, the “No PT” (no procedure turn) advisory is depicted, or ATC is providing radar vectors to the final approach course.
A holding pattern is part of a missed approach procedure. When you practice missed approaches, do they always end with a missed approach hold? They should. You’ll wish you practiced them more often because in real-world IMC, flying a full-blown miss is a high-workload job. Once you’ve decided to fly the miss, you’ll need to power up, enter a climb, announce your missed approach to ATC, retract gear and flaps, retrim, fly to the missed approach point, enter the holding pattern, report your time and altitude to ATC, reduce power, retrim, and track the pattern’s inbound leg. Good thing that many missed approaches begin with straight-ahead climbs to holding fixes that are dead ahead.
Want more situations where a hold might be necessary? An airplane ahead of you has a gear-up landing, closing the airport. At a nontowered airport, a pilot forgets to call ATC to close the flight plan. The ILS or VOR serving the approach goes out. The weather goes below minimums. In each case you may well need to hold and then fly elsewhere. Think some more, and you can envision other reasons. You may even face situations where you’d ask ATC for a hold. Let’s say you need time to troubleshoot a system problem, study an upcoming procedure, or check on weather at alternate airports.
The expect further clearance (EFC) term in a holding clearance is important because it makes the holding fix your clearance limit. You should make sure you’re issued an EFC in case you lose communications with ATC. If you lose communications when you’re holding at an en route or other fix that isn’t associated with an instrument approach, leave the holding fix at the EFC and fly to a fix from which your approach begins. Then start your descent and approach as close as possible to your most recently calculated estimated time of arrival (ETA), based on any clearance amendments. If your clearance wasn’t amended, use the ETA you named in your flight plan.
If you lose communications and your holding fix is a fix where an approach begins—an initial, intermediate, or final approach fix—then begin the descent, or descent and approach—as close to the EFC as you can. No EFC? Then as close to the ETA as possible. For the full lowdown on lost communications, check FAR 91.185.
Along with an EFC, ATC should also keep you advised of any expected delays, and give the time of the delay duration. The worst case would be the dreaded “delay indefinite” message, followed by another EFC time—which means additional turns around the holding pattern.
With the popularity of full-featured GPS navigators and their big-screen moving maps, it’s easier to do the mental gymnastics needed to orient yourself to the holding fix and the legs of the pattern. They even tell you the correct holding pattern entry! But full familiarity is vital when it comes to flying holding patterns. Recent Garmin navigators, for example, require that you use the OBS function to define the inbound leg of the holding pattern and suspend sequencing. If you don’t, you’ll navigate to the next fix in the flight plan instead of staying in the holding pattern. However, guidance to and around missed approach holding patterns can be automatic. And if on autopilot, the airplane will continue to hold until you select another operation.
That’s a far cry from the bad old analog, round-gauges-only days. The basics may remain the same, but those of us flying with flight directors, autopilots, and automated navigation definitely have a big advantage.
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