What is a “holding” pattern?

by Captain Joe

A holding pattern for instrument flight rules (IFR) aircraft is usually a racetrack pattern based on a holding fix.

This fix can be a radio beacon such as a non-directional beacon (NDB) or VHF omnidirectional range (VOR). The fix is the start of the first turn of the racetrack pattern. Aircraft will fly towards the fix, and once there will enter a predefined racetrack pattern.

A standard holding pattern uses right-hand turns and takes approximately 4 minutes to complete (one minute for each 180 degree turn, and two one-minute straight ahead sections).

Deviations from this pattern can happen if long delays are expected; longer legs (usually two or three minutes) may be used, or aircraft with distance measuring equipment (DME) may be assigned patterns with legs defined in nautical miles rather than minutes.

Less frequent turns are more comfortable for passengers and crew. Additionally, left-hand turns may be assigned to some holding patterns if there are airspace or traffic restrictions nearby.

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