Making A Grand Entrance

ATC is trying to keep things as orderly as possible and when they ask a pilot to fly a holding pattern, the pattern itself is only part of the problem. Airplanes don’t hover so pilots must enter the hold with even more precision than it takes to fly the holding pattern itself.

A hold is conducted over a ‘fix,’ which is anywhere that can be identified using radio navigation. Ordinarily you would be flying toward the holding fix and then after crossing the fix you begin the hold entry maneuver. The actual entry maneuver you make is really up to you, but here is the most important thing to remember: The hold entry must take place within the airspace contained by the holding pattern itself. The holding pattern is a racetrack shaped area that when assigned to you becomes your ‘protected area.’ Translation: While you are holding, no other aircraft will be allowed into that area at your altitude. Likewise, any place outside the racetrack area is ‘unprotected‘ and should be considered off limits to you during the time that you have been assigned to hold.

Note: If you accidentally wander out of the protected area, chances are very good that a controller would not notice it until you created a real problem. Remember, when ATC is forced to put you into a holding pattern it is because they have a more pressing problem elsewhere on their radar screen that needs their attention. If they had time to carefully observe your hold entry, then they probably would not need you to hold in the first place.

You are most likely to get turned around and accidentally fly out of the protected area during the entry maneuver. To avoid flying into the path of other aircraft, pilots must have a good plan. Pilots can use any entry they wish — however, I have never come up with anything better than the standard three entries: Direct, Teardrop, and Parallel.

The Direct Entry. The pilot flies directly to the fix. When the fix is crossed the pilot turns (either left or right depending on the hold’s turn direction) directly to the hold’s outbound leg. The pilot flies the outbound leg for approximately one-minute then turns inbound and intercepts the inbound holding leg back to the fix.

The Teardrop Entry. This pilot is approaching the holding pattern at an angle that will not allow a turn directly to the outbound leg, because such a turn would be too sharp. Again, the pilot flies directly to the fix, but after crossing the fix the pilot turns into what will be the middle of the holding pattern’s protected area. Sometimes a 30-degree angle to the inbound leg is used. The pilot flies across the interior of the race-track pattern for approximately one minute then turns in the same direction as the holding pattern’s turns to intercept the inbound leg back to the fix. The flight path taken through the racetrack and then back around to the fix makes the shape of a teardrop — hence the name.

The Parallel Entry. Again, the pilot is approaching the holding pattern from an angle that creates a turn over the station that would be too sharp to allow for a direct entry. Again, the pilot flies directly to the fix. After crossing the fix, the pilot flies a heading outbound that is parallel to what will become the holding pattern’s inbound leg — hence the name parallel. The pilot flies away from the station on a parallel but opposite direction to the holding pattern’s inbound course for approximately one minute and then turns into the racetrack pattern.

Note: The entry turn for a Parallel Entry will be to the left when entering a right holding pattern and to the right when entering left hand patterns. The pilot then flies back through the interior of the racetrack pattern and back to the fix. The actual flight path of a teardrop and a parallel are the same — they are just flown in opposite directions.

THE TRICK: Picture the holding pattern as you approach it and select the entry that will remain inside the protected area. I think the best way to do this is to simulate it on the ground first, before trying it in the air.

This past summer I taught holding pattern entries to several of my own instrument students using our airport’s ATV. Photo 1 shows two of the students ‘flying‘ inbound to a VOR station. In this case the VOR was actually a ‘home plate‘ I borrowed from little league. As the students approached the fix (home plate) I called out a holding instruction. They then had to figure out where that hold was and which entry to ‘fly’ before crossing the fix. Photo 2 shows a different set of students who have passed the fix and are outbound in their entry maneuver. Once the entry was completed the students would then ‘drive’ around the racetrack holding pattern … usually, real fast! We had a lot of fun practicing our hold entries this way and one student said, ‘I never understood this until I could actually drive through it.’

So, which entry is best? When you can picture the holding pattern in your imagination before arriving at the fix, it really become obvious, but there is another gimmick that may help. Hold your hand up against the airplane’s Directional Gyro to show you which entry will keep you in the protected area. Photo 3 is a picture I took of my left hand in front of the DG. My index finger is positioned straight ahead on the airplane’s heading. The distance between my index finger and middle finger represents a 70-degree piece of the DG. The distance between my index finger and my thumb is wider and it represents a larger 110-degree piece of the DG…

  • If the outbound heading of the holding pattern that is assigned appears within the 70-degree piece between my index and middle fingers, then I fly a Teardrop Entry.
  • If the outbound heading falls in the 110-degree piece between my index finger and thumb, then I fly a Parallel Entry.
  • If the outbound leg is in neither 70- nor 110-degree piece, then it must lie within the remaining 180-degrees of the DG and I would fly a Direct Entry.

Important: The picture shows me using my left hand — so this works for left-hand holding patterns. For right hand holding patterns, use your right hand and it will work then as well … but now the 70-degree teardrop piece is on the right, and the 110 degree parallel piece is on the left.

It appears that the airplane’s heading in Photo 3 is about 330-degrees. If my hold instructions were, ‘Hold West on the 270 degree radial, Left Hand Turns,’ I would use a Teardrop Entry, because 270-degrees is within 70-degrees of my heading — between my index and middle fingers and in the teardrop piece.

If my instructions had been, ‘Hold Northeast on the 060 degree radial, Left Hand Turns,’ I would use a Parallel Entry, because 060-degrees is within 110-degrees from the right of the nose — between my index finger and my thumb.

If I been given, ‘Hold Southeast on the 150 degree radial, Left Hand Turns,’ I would use the Direct Entry, because the heading of 150 is outside both the 70-degree teardrop and 110-degree parallel pieces — and under my wrist.

THE BOTTOM LINE: You must understand how to interpret hold instructions and then fly the entry into that hold without creating a hazard to yourself and others. Visualizing the hold and practicing your entries will keep you in your protected areas and out of harm’s way.