Basics of Holding Patterns SC

So before we get into demystifying the complex clearances and instructions you’ll get flying IFR, let’s stick to the basics of how you’ll enter a holding pattern.

The Shape of the Racetrack

For starters, all holding patterns have the same shape, a racetrack pattern with two straight edges (as shown below).  The racetrack will always be “centered” so to speak over a specific point, either a VOR, Compass Locator (not many of those left in existence), or just a regular fix along an airway (could be a GPS fix or an intersection along Victor airways).  It’s also important to note a “standard holding pattern” makes right-hand turns, a non-standard pattern would be left turns (opposite from the traffic pattern).  What ultimately affects the shape of the holding pattern “racetrack” is two things, your speed, and the instructions on the hold.  The leg “time” always refers to the INBOUND leg (you adjust the time you spend on the outbound leg accounting for wind to try and achieve a one-minute inbound leg).

One minute INBOUND legs are standard, and right hand turns are standard

You make standard rate turns in the hold, so your speed will affect the radius of turn.  Your speed will also affect the distance of the legs when flying a “timed” hold.  Sometimes a holding pattern’s legs may be specified in distance (i.e. 5nm legs) instead of time.  You would then have equal length legs inbound and outbound.

regular holding pattern ifr

So how do you join the holding pattern?

Well, this depends on from which direction you are approaching.  While there is not a regulation requiring you to enter a holding pattern a certain way, the FAA does have recommendations, and your Examiner or CFI will expect you to use the proper holding pattern entries.

The easiest way to tell how to enter a hold is this:

  1. Draw a dot on a piece of paper (this represents your holding fix, either an intersection, VOR, etc.)ifr holding pattern drawing 1
  2. Draw two perpendicular lines through the center of the holding fix.ifr holding pattern drawing 2
  3. Let’s say for example (and we’ll cover this a lot more in-depth next TOPIC) you are told to hold NORTH on the 360 RADIAL, One-minute legs.  Well, now you have all the information you need. if you’re holding NORTH then your holding pattern will be established and drawn north of the station.  The “on the 360 radial” tells you your INBOUND radial. And “one-minute legs” tells you how long your INBOUND leg should be.  You can now draw the “racetrack” and arrows if you wish to help you visualize (like below).
    ifr holding pattern drawing 3
  4. Your next step is to draw a line (dashed or solid, your choice) offset 20 degrees.  Think of “turning” or “tilting” this line towards the holding pattern.  Another way to think of this is to “turn” or “twist” or “tilt” (whatever you prefer), the DASHED LINE you’re drawing to MORE evenly divide the holding pattern (racetrack).ifr holding pattern drawing 4
  5. The last and final step is to draw YOU (I use a little simple “t” shape to draw my airplane).  Once you have yourself on the “map”, you can decide what section you are approaching to enter from.  You can also label each section, REMEMBERING that DIRECT is the largest section, TEARDROP is the smallest (because no one wants to spend a bunch of time crying), and PARALLEL must just be what’s left over (not the smallest, and not the biggest section).ifr holding pattern drawing 5
  6. You can now see you are entering from the TEARDROP sector and should fly a TEARDROP entry to the hold to reverse course and get established inbound in your holding pattern.  (seems like a lotta work just to do something you really don’t want to do in the first place right?)

If you like colorful and pretty things, then check out the colorful and pretty diagram below. It shows with a little more enthusiasm which sector is what, and what your course would look like flying either a TEARDROP or PARALLEL entry (direct entry is not depicted because, well, you’ll just be turning over the fix to directly enter into your right turn and proceed outbound, and you’re basically already “established in the hold” once you cross the fix.).

how to enter a holding pattern IFR

Proceeding with the Hold

When you get holding instructions, they will always specify the

  • radial to hold on
  • leg length
  • direction of turns (by ATC not mentioning the turn direction, it means they want standard right turns)
  • and an EFC time

We’ll go ahead and take a look below at some examples of how a hold entry and the whole procedure will look (establishing yourself in the hold based on ATC’s instructions)

Cessna 8MA, hold north on the 360 radial of the Sarasota VORTAC, 1-minute legs, Expect Further Clearance at 1253Z, time now 1240Z

holding pattern example


Cessna 8MA, hold south on the 150 radial of the Sarasota VORTAC, 5-mile legs, left turns, Expect Further Clearance at 1253Z, time now 1240Z

Holding Pattern Limits

  • 0-6,000ft msl 200knots
  • 6,001msl-14,000 msl 230knots
  • 14,001 msl+ 265knots
  • Slow to holding speed 3 mins prior to crossing the holding fix
  • At or below 14,000’ msl 1min
  • Above 14,000’ msl 1.5min