A Controller's View of Holding

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Thrash through a hold any way you like, just hold your altitude.

Ever made dinner reservations for 7:00 p.m., arrived at the restaurant at 6:56 and, upon giving your name to the maitre d', discovered that not only is your table unavailable, but you can't even get near the dining room? Failing to grease the upturned palm with a ten, you find yourself in the lounge—waiting. In restaurant terms, you've been slapped with a hold.

It's the same with Air Traffic Control. You see, prior to becoming controllers, most of us worked our way through the FAA's Academy in Oklahoma City waiting tables in the school's cafeteria. There, we were taught not only to keep a dozen pilot requests straight, but we learned the importance of fielding complaints.

ATC, unlike the restaurant business, serves its patrons on a first-come, first-served basis—unless you're competing with Air Force One or Michael Jackson's G-IV. Deprived of the chance to slip a ten to the controller ("Psst, let's say we skip the hold and go direct, eh?") you're forced to wait your turn. In a busy environment, someone will be first, and everyone else will follow. When the conga line gets too long, someone has to wait in the lounge.

Half our purpose in ATC is to get airplanes from the sky and onto the ground (preferably at their destination airports) as safely and quickly as possible. Holding interrupts the flow, but it's sometimes, the only alternative.

The reasons for holding are as varied as the number of controllers in the system. Holding is not the norm where I work. I can't speak for busier facilities, but if I initiate holding my troubles are just beginning.

Holds definitely have a regional flavor. A coastal airport, for instance, might be routinely fog-bound until mid-morning, clear all afternoon and W0X0F again at sunset. To avoid holds, local pilots schedule themselves accordingly.

The midwest has a less predictable day. A cool morning with gentle southerly breezes can lead to a wicked afternoon with towering cumulus building into thunderstorms. Winds shift with each passage. The runways disappear under heavy rain showers, and pilots may find themselves unable to even approach the field.

For controllers, the problem of where to put airplanes is compounded by the weather. As thunderstorms grow, airspace vanishes. A handful of airplanes are squeezed into tighter places while voices on both ends of the frequency grow strained.

"Cleared to the (fix); hold as published..." should be the easiest solution. But what if the published hold sits in the middle of Level 5 cell? A new holding pattern must be created. All bets are off; it's the controller's chance to be creative. A clearance direct to the VOR might be easiest, or, my favorite, a DME fix on the inbound radial you happen to be on. I've even asked pilots to hold over ground reference points, such as lakes.

Just because you're on an IFR flight plan, doesn't mean we can't negotiate a simpler way to park you. I've asked pilots to simply make a couple of 360s to buy time. Of course, there's no EFC but in the event of lost comm, I'd expect them to follow normal lost comm procedures, via last route cleared, or expected, and so on.

A winter snowstorm can clog the system for hours. Once the visibility lifts, the runways are usually packed with snow. Estimates of runway opening time are always optimistic. The result: Everyone holds, maybe on the ground at the departure airport or, less desirably, airborne. In this scenario, the easiest way to hold is to stick everyone on the localizer, at separate altitudes and, as runway conditions allow, peel off the arrivals one at a time, stepping everyone down in the process.

How a pilot enters or flies the hold is almost moot because everyone is separated by altitude. In more complex airspace where holding might be in progress at a number of fixes, the pilot's ability to remain within protected airspace could become a more serious consideration. A target wandering away from the hold could draw a gentle "Where are you going?" followed by a hand-holding vector back to the corral.

Can I tell if your hold entry is FAA/AIM/Martha King-approved? Teardrop, parallel or direct? Maybe. Do I care? No. As long as your radar target is mushing around the vicinity of the fix and at the altitude assigned, I don't get too concerned.

If you actually find yourself compelled to hold and you haven't the foggiest notion how to enter the pattern, don't panic. There's no air traffic snitch in the radar room measuring your turns or timing your inbound legs. Just jump right in, hold altitude and thrash your way through it the best you can. If you get bored with right turns, ask for left. If you want longer legs, speak up.

Glean what you can from the ATIS regarding delays. If holding looms ahead, ask for a speed reduction. Maybe you'll never get to the hold and even if you do, it can't last forever. Remember, in more than 50 years of air traffic control, we haven't left one up there yet.

Editor's Note:

For more, see "Hold Entries Revisited" by Paul Bertorelli.