Say Again? #54: ATC 206 — Holding

Nobody wants to wait. Pilots in a hold are bored and yet anxious to finish the flight. But if you're in a hold, you can bet the controller is not at all bored. AVweb's Don Brown suggests ways to make holding easier and safer in the next course in his 200-series of communication classes.


Airliner one twenty three, cleared to SHINE, hold northwest, as published, expect further clearance one five three zero.”Holding might not be ordinary to you, but in Atlanta Center (ZTL) it’s as ordinary as pine trees in Georgia. During normal business hours, somebody — somewhere — always seems to be holding in ZTL airspace. I think holding patterns must have been invented at Atlanta. I can’t remember a time we didn’t hold for Hartsfield (ATL). We now hold almost every day for Charlotte (CLT), too.While holding is common, it is never boring. At least it isn’t for me. I sat down at the SHINE sector the other day and there was already a holding stack. I started slowly but surely feeding the arrivals to CLT Approach at 20 miles-in-trail. Then I took a handoff of a foreign air carrier landing at CLT. That was somewhat unusual; we don’t normally work those on the west side of CLT.


Anyway, I was walking him down in the holding pattern and he asked how much longer he would be in hold. I told him about 10 minutes. He decided to divert to Washington, Dulles (IAD). That got my attention. As you can imagine, I was already busy but I decided I’d better take a closer look at his flight progress strip. From what I could tell, he was originally inbound to ATL but had to divert to CLT because of holding at ATL. Now he was caught in the holding pattern at CLT.I had other things to do but suddenly I didn’t have anything better to do. I stopped him off at the highest altitude I had available (to conserve fuel), gave him a vector out of the pattern and a clearance to IAD. With visions of Avianca 52 dancing in my head, I told my D-side (data controller) to inform the supervisor and tried to get back to juggling all the other airplanes I had in my airspace.That is the first thing I want you to learn about holding. When circumstances are bad enough that controllers are forced to put you in holding, things often go from bad to worse. Delays in one place often lead to delays in another. If the weather becomes too bad to land at your destination, chances are that it will be less than ideal at your alternate, too. Even if your alternate is well above minimums, don’t think you’re the only airplane that has had to divert. You might have to hold at your alternate due to the increased volume of other airplanes diverting to the same place.

Cleared To

Now that I’ve got the war story out of the way, let’s get down to the mechanics of holding. If a controller has to hold you, the first thing he will have to do is change your clearance limit. There aren’t any holding patterns based on airports. (Insert lecture about filing direct to airports.)For reference, the section in the Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) covering holding is 5-3-7. The section of the FAA 7110.65 (Air Traffic Control) that deals with holding is Chapter 4: IFR, Section 6: Holding Aircraft.If a controller has to issue a hold, he has to decide where to hold you. We like to use charted holding patterns if they are available just because it is so much easier. Take the example that I opened this article with:

“Airliner one twenty three, cleared to SHINE, hold northwest, as published, expect further clearance one five three zero.”

If a controller had to turn that into “detailed” holding instructions, it would come out like this:

“Airliner one twenty three, cleared to SHINE, hold northwest on the CLT three one four radial, right turns, one minute legs, expect further clearance one five three zero.”

Clearance Questions

Inevitably, that will lead to a question in the readback.

“… expect further clearance one five three zero, Center, can we get 10-mile legs?”

Inevitably, that leads to pilots forgetting to use their callsign. I’ve mentioned it before but I’m going to mention it again: If a pilot asks a question during his readback the odds are he will forget to use his callsign. I don’t know why that is, I just know that it is.Stop asking questions:

“Cleared to SHINE, hold northwest, as published, expect further clearance one five three zero, request one zero miles legs, Airliner one twenty three.”

Hold That Thought

Most of the General Aviation crowd won’t find themselves holding on a STAR (Standard Terminal Arrival Route) for a major airport. Most of the holding you’ll do is around airports, so let’s take at look at that.I like to hold at a fix that bears some relationship to the approach the pilot can expect. Even that criteria leaves us with a multitude of options. Let’s look at the ILS RWY 24 HKY (Hickory, N.C.) as an example.

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Hickory, N.C. (KHKY) ILS Rwy 24
(Click for larger version)

The most obvious place to hold is the charted holding pattern at the Barretts Mountain VOR (BZM). It’s possible to hold at the TAWBA NDB but I don’t remember doing so more than once or twice in my career. One of my favorite tricks is to hold at SANFI or VAESE intersections when it is non-radar. I’m not going to dwell on the subject, but SANFI is on V20 and VAESE is on V222-20. These fixes provide a transition from the en route environment to the approach environment and are convenient fixes for holding. I’ve already covered non-radar so we’ll stick to the normal operations in which the radar is working.We don’t hold for HKY on a regular basis, of course; but it isn’t unheard of, either. When we do hold, you can just bet that we’re already behind the curve. There will be plenty of other airplanes going in or out of HKY and several other airports close by. That’s just my way of saying it isn’t a good time to play “20 Questions” with the controller.

The Wrong Foot

“Learjet five six seven eight niner, cleared to Barretts Mountain, hold north, as published for the ILS runway two four, expect further clearance one five four five.”

The “as published for the ILS runway two four” gets the point across but isn’t exactly your standard phraseology. Neither is this:

“Center, you mean to tell me we’ve got to hold for 30 minutes to get into Hickory?”

Let me be blunt here, folks: This is not a good way to start a relationship with a controller you just checked in with. If you get a 30-minute hold into a small airport, I can understand that you might be surprised. What you — the pilot — need to understand is that controllers don’t hand out lengthy holds because we’re bored. It’s usually because we are very, very busy. The best thing you can do — the very best thing — is to read the clearance back and comply with it, and hopefully the controller will find a spare moment to explain the situation.


While we’re here, let me say a few words about Expect Further Clearance times (EFCs). EFCs are just a guess. They always have been and they always will be. I personally issue EFCs from a pessimistic point of view: I don’t ever expect the “best-case” scenario when I’m forced to hold. And it’s a rare day I have to reissue a later EFC.Many of the controllers (perhaps most) I know are more optimistic than I am when it comes to issuing EFCs. That’s fine. Different strokes for different folks. It sure is a pain to go back through a stack of 10-12 airplanes and issue every single one of them a new EFC, though.Still, whether optimistic or pessimistic, the controller is just guessing. Much will depend on the airplanes in front of you. Will they shoot the approach quickly or slowly? Will they land or miss the approach? There are just too many factors at work to be able to give a precise EFC. I know that when pilots are watching the fuel gauges drop, they want to start asking questions. You might pressure a controller into giving you an earlier EFC but all you’re getting is still a guess.

Which Way?

Let’s move on. I’ve had some trainees express their confusion about which way to hold for nonstandard patterns. The simplest trick is to mentally put the words “of (the fix)” after the direction the controller gives you. Let’s use SANFI as the holding fix so you can see what I mean.

“Cessna one two three four five, cleared to SANFI, hold northeast on Victor twenty, left turns, expect further clearance one five four zero.”

This example assumes that you’re on V20, southwest bound to BZM. You’ll also notice that you were given left turns. When you reach SANFI intersection you’ll turn left to stay northeast “of” the SANFI intersection. You’ll also notice that the controller didn’t issue the length of the holding legs.

AIM 5-3-7: Holding4. Timing.

(a) Inbound Leg.

(1) At or below 14,000 feet MSL: 1 minute.(2) Above 14,000 feet MSL: 1 1/2 minutes.

Standard holding patterns are right turns and a one-minute leg (below 14,000 MSL). In this case, I have instructed the pilot to hold “northeast on Victor twenty.” In that SANFI is both an en route intersection (on V20) and an initial approach fix (IAF) for the ILS RWY 24 HKY, I believe it would be possible to hold on the TAWBA 061 bearing at the BZM 13.3 DME. In other words, you could hold on the final approach course (FAC). I’m making an assumption that it would be easier to hold using course guidance from just one NAVAID at a time. In that I’m not a pilot (just a reminder), I don’t really know.

A Short Side Trip

While we’re here, I want to mention something. Take a look at theapproach plate for the ILS RWY 24 HKY again. See the note, “3,400 NoPT toMIRTY Int,” next to the SANFI intersection? What does that say to you? Tome it says, “No Procedure Turn [go straight in on the ILS] and stay at3,400 feet until MIRTY.” There has been a debate amongst controllersabout that for at least 20 years. Nobody debates the “NoPT” part; it’sthe “3,400 until MIRTY” part that leads to arguments. It’s amazing howmany pilots descend to 2,700 before MIRTY. SANFI is 18.5 miles from TAWBAand the profile view (which shows the 2,700 altitude) says, “Remainwithin 10 NM [of TAWBA].” To me (and I am definitely not the finalauthority on these matters) that is 8.5 nautical miles of “gotcha” if youaren’t paying attention. I thought this little sidebar might inspire youto “pay attention” next time you’re reading an approach plate.

Route Limits

I’ve got to go back and touch on a few other points about your clearance limit. Again, let’s look at the clearance that started this article.

“Airliner one twenty three, cleared to SHINE, hold northwest, as published, expect further clearance one five three zero.”

That clearance changes your clearance limit. It does not change your routing. It does not clear you direct to SHINE. Likewise, an advisory to “… expect radar vectors ILS runway two four Hickory” does not change your routing. Don’t use your advanced NAV to slide over towards the intercept point or an IAF. If you were cleared direct to the airport and your routing hasn’t been changed, then you are supposed to be flying direct to the airport.I see both of these errors on a constant basis. I mentioned it to a pilot the other day on the frequency and he didn’t seem to appreciate it. I’m going to tell you like I told him: If it keeps happening — sooner or later — we won’t be talking about it … we’ll be filing paperwork. Lest you forget, I work in a Center. We have the Operational Error Detection Program (a.k.a., “The Snitch Machine”). If you make a turn to someplace without a clearance, get close to another airplane and the machine goes off — the talking is over. The machine goes off at the manager’s desk and an investigation starts.


I guess I ought to mention altitudes while you’re holding. There really isn’t much to it except for the reporting requirements and what to do once you’re cleared out of the holding pattern. Again, I’ve mentioned this in another article but it bears repeating: When you’re in a holding pattern the requirement to report leaving an altitude becomes important.

AIM 5-3-3a. The following reports should be made to ATC or FSS facilities without a specific ATC request:

1. At all times.

(a) When vacating any previously assigned altitude or flight level for a newly assigned altitude or flight level.

Multiple data blocks holding over the same fix are really hard to see because all of the text overlaps.There is another report listed in the AIM:

AIM 5-3-7f. Pilots should report to ATC the time and altitude/flight level at which the aircraft reaches the clearance limit and report leaving the clearance limit.

The last situation involving your altitude assignment is when you’re in a holding pattern that is part of a transition for an approach. Take the charted holding pattern for the HKY ILS RWY 24 approach as an example. Let’s say you’ve already shot one approach and missed. The missed approach takes you back to the Barretts Mountain VOR to the holding pattern. Once you’re established in the holding pattern, the controller could just clear you for the approach again. Granted, most of the time the controller will vector you for the FAC. But he doesn’t have to.

Cleared Over

So, you’re in the holding pattern at 4,000 and the weather has improved enough to where you want to try it again.

“Atlanta Center, Cessna one two three four five request ILS runway two four Hickory.”

All the controller has to say is,

“Cessna one two three four five, cleared ILS runway two four approach Hickory.”

AIM 5-3-7m. For those holding patterns where there are no published minimum holding altitudes, the pilot, upon receiving an approach clearance, must maintain the last assigned altitude until leaving the holding pattern and established on the inbound course. Thereafter, the published minimum altitude of the route segment being flown will apply. It is expected that the pilot will be assigned a holding altitude that will permit a normal descent on the inbound course.

In this example, you’d stay at 4,000 until “leaving the holding pattern” and then descend to 3,500 once you were established on the BZM 219 radial to TAWBA, which is “the published minimum altitude of the route segment being flown.” If you’ll take a look at that and work it out, then you’ll be able to participate in the next great debate: Whether or not you have to execute a procedure turn. We’ll deal with that question some other time.Have a safe flight.

Don Brown
Facility Safety Representative
National Air Traffic Controllers Association
Atlanta ARTCC

Want to read more from air traffic controller Don Brown? Check out the rest of his columns.