Holding-Pattern-Style Course reversals

This is not amateur-hour: Making sure you stay out of the wrong airspace can take some fancy footwork, so make sure you know how to execute the proper maneuvers at the proper time — there have never been worse days to end up in the wrong airspace, by mistake and in the blind. Most of the instruction I do is with already-rated instrument pilots, yet I regularly see the same procedural errors. From my experience providing Instrument Proficiency Checks (IPCs), one of the least clearly understood instrument approach maneuvers is the ‘holding-pattern-style course reversal.’

Typically, when you receive an Air Traffic Control (ATC) radar vector to the final approach course (at least in the U.S.), ATC will give you the heading to fly and you’ll make a small turn (usually less than 30 degrees’ heading change) to drive straight-in on the approach. Sometimes, though, scant radar coverage or other factor makes you have to do the work yourself. We all learned procedure turns (flying outbound, turning 45 degrees and flying a minute, turning around and intercepting the inbound course at a 45-degree angle) in basic instrument training. But some instrument approach procedures (IAPs) replace the procedure turn (PT) with a ‘holding-pattern-style course reversal.’ For some reason (other, nearby airports, restricted areas, etc.), the course reversal must be done in a smaller block of airspace, one too small for the traditional, 10-mile PT. In those cases, a holding pattern is charted, usually at the Final Approach Fix (FAF). Flying a holding-pattern-style course reversal allows a pilot-guided-turn to the inbound course in a smaller area.

Inside Information: This method gives ATC the option of putting more than one airplane on the approach at a time, ‘stacking them up‘ as they used to say, at the final approach fix. One airplane turns inbound, and the plane above/behind it descends to intercept altitude for its turn. Airplanes are ‘dealt off the bottom of the deck‘ toward the airport.

Don’t assume that the pilot must fly the entire racetrack procedure of the holding pattern — that is, enter the hold, hit the FAF on the inbound course, and then turn outbound again. This isn’t necessary. In fact, if there’s someone behind (or above) you on the same approach, turning outbound in the hold may turn you directly toward a collision. If you’re on altitude and established on the inbound course when you reach the FAF, and you’re cleared for the approach, press on and fly the approach.

The sole purpose of the holding-pattern-style course reversal is to guide the pilot through a short-range turn inbound, using a holding pattern entry as a means of intercepting the inbound course from any angle.

A ‘direct‘ entry is where you hit the holding fix and turn to the outbound course — your heading as you approach the fix is close enough to the published inbound heading that you can easily make the normal holding pattern turn. If your heading isn’t very close to the inbound, then you’ll need to fly a teardrop entry or a parallel entry, as appropriate for your heading. But all a teardrop or parallel entry really is, is a means of putting you in a position to make a ‘direct’ entry next time you get to the fix. For a thorough explanation, see Making A Grand Entrance.

If your goal is to enter and remain in the holding pattern, then your teardrop or parallel entry helps you line up for the hold. However, if your object is to fly the approach, but use a holding-pattern-style course reversal instead of a procedure turn, then the parallel or teardrop maneuver is there simply to get you lined up with the final approach course in a limited amount of airspace. There’s no magic to the hold — in fact, you’re not flying the hold at all. You’re simply using the holding pattern entry technique to turn around in a small space.

There are times you might want to stay in the hold when cleared for an approach. If your altitude is too high to safely begin the approach when you reach the FAF inbound; if your airspeed or airplane configuration aren’t as you’d like; or if you’re not quite lined up with the inbound course before you get to the FAF … you might ask ATC for permission to stay in the hold another turn to get ready for the approach. You need to ask as early as possible, because there might be someone in line behind you. If you get permission, stay in the hold to get on altitude, airspeed, configuration, and track before you press on inbound from the final approach fix.

BOTTOM LINE: Anytime you fly IFR, you may be called on to fly some seldom-used procedures like the holding-pattern-style course reversal. We call it instrument flight rules for a reason. Now is a very good time to know them. Know and follow the rules, and you should safely complete your approach. Skimp on studying and you may make a mistake that puts successful completion of the approach — or your life — at risk. Brush up, everyone. Let’s get it right and maybe they’ll give us our sky back.