No one likes to have their forward progress stopped. You know what I mean. When you are stuck in a traffic jam on the road, it’s very aggravating. Waiting at a long red stoplight when you need to be somewhere can raise your blood pressure. Similarly, when ATC says, “Expect holding at [a navigation fix],” you probably think, “Now what?!” Or maybe your thoughts tend toward more colorful language.
Not only are holding clearances complex and difficult to copy, they raise all sorts of red flags. When I hear, “Expect holding” I immediately begin to wonder about which of the many reasons why ATC has to stop me my tracks.
- Has the weather deteriorated at my destination?
- Is ATC in the process of changing to a different landing runway at my destination?
- If I’m still far from my destination, has a radar outage occurred at an ATC facility further along my route?
- Has the only usable runway at my destination been shut down by another aircraft that landed with an emergency?
Although each of these reasons are very different from each other, they all have one thing in common. They are going to cost me time and fuel. Usually, I’m not worried about spending extra time airborne. After many years, I’ve learned to ignore “Get Home-itis”. My cure is we’ll get there when we get there. What I’ll never stop sweating is fuel burned. Namely, I’m always concerned about whether I have enough fuel onboard to continue as originally planned.
Holding, for all of its aggravations, is always a consumer of more fuel than originally planned. When I hear, “Expect holding”, I immediately think, how much time can I sit in a holding pattern and still have a safe and comfortable reserve of fuel upon landing at my destination?
While I’m doing these mental calculations, ATC says, “I have holding instructions. Advise when ready to copy.” This advisory brings with it a mixture of anticipation and relief. Anticipation because ATC is about to fire off a very complex clearance. Relief because the last part of the controller’s instructions will include an Expect Further Clearance time (EFC).
The EFC is information I can use to determine how much fuel I’ll have onboard when ATC releases me to continue towards my destination. Although ATC can change an EFC at any time, it’s lets me calculate whether I can sit in holding or plan a divert to an airport that’s closer to the holding fix than my original destination.
All of this brings us to the meat of the matter, the holding clearance. First, how does a controller determine where to place your flight into holding? There are several variables that determine this, including your current route and altitude, the direction and location of other traffic, and in some cases, the weather in the area of the planned holding pattern.
Most of time, these variables can be anticipated by ATC. Given a set of known variables, a controller will select from a number of preplanned holding options and select the best fit for your flight. In a best case scenario, the controller will direct you hold at some point on your current route of flight. That point is usually a VORTAC or a named 5-letter fix on your current airway.
The most convenient holding location, for a controller and for you, is one in which the holding pattern is published on a navigation chart. If your cleared route happens to intersect one of these publish patterns, the controller will simply say, “Hold as published at the ‘Umpty-Ump'” VORTAC or fix. In that case, all you have to do is look at the chart and note the direction of the holding pattern as it appears on the chart. In some cases, the holding pattern may have a published distance for the outbound leg of the pattern. In rare instances, the published pattern may contain a maximum speed while in holding. Your holding pattern becomes nothing more than complying with whatever is in print for the designated pattern.
On the flip side of the coin, the most complex holding clearance is one in which the controller builds a holding pattern from scratch. He may direct you to hold at a specific DME on a specific VORTAC radial. He may tell you to make left-hand turns in holding if he needs to create a non-standard pattern. He may also give you a distance to hold on the outbound leg if standard timing in holding won’t work for the given situation. He’ll always finish this complex clearance with an altitude to maintain and an EFC.
Here’s an example of one of these complex clearances for a random holding pattern.
“Skyhawk 9130D, hold southwest of the Beckley 050-degree radial, 15 DME fix, 8-mile legs, left turns, maintain 7,000. Expect further clearance at 1530. Time now 1450.”
Which, Masters of the Obvious will note is a lot to copy. First, the bad news. I don’t have a convenient acronym to help you memorize the order and format of a holding clearance. If you know of one, I’d like to hear about it in the comments section below. Now for the good news.
The order and phrases ATC uses when issuing a holding clearance never varies. The controller may omit some details of a holding clearance if they don’t apply but the format of the clearance is constant and predictable.
Knowing that the order and phrases used by ATC never varies, you can prepare for the possibility of holding by keeping a cheat sheet at the ready in your cockpit. An example might look like this:
- “Hold” + hold direction
- “Of” holding fix location (VORTAC, named fix on an airway, radial/DME)
- Optional leg length
- Optional left turns
When you’ve copied all that to paper, you’ll need to read it back to the controller exactly as it was spoken to you. Don’t get creative in your readback. Simply parrot (repeat) the clearance word for word.
Now you’ll have to do some ciphering. First, how should you enter the pattern? Your all-knowing instructor should have words of wisdom on this topic. Next, you’ll need to do a fuel calculation to determine whether you can sit in holding all the way to the EFC. Finally, you’ll need to fly the holding pattern as copied. Again, your instructor will have the tips and techniques to cope.
All this effort gets you more fuel burned and bit of a mental exercise in “Is this gonna work out okay?”
You can make holding a bit easier on yourself by practice copying. If you’d like some hands-on practice copying holding clearances without burning fuel, you can use my course Clearance Magic. The online program contains over 3 hours of video and audio instruction, plus over 150 hands-on exercises. Holding is covered as well as pre-departure clearances, altitude clearances, and enroute amendments.
Holding will never be on anyone’s short list of favorite flying activities. It is a necessary evil and one of those requirements that happens from time to time. When well-prepared, you can manage the problems created by holding with a minimum of sweat.