When I was working on my instrument rating, one of the first skills I learned was how to enter and fly a holding pattern. I sometimes had a devil of a time figuring out the proper entry—and at that time, there really was a requirement to get the proper entry and enter the hold properly—and sometimes I had bit of (or a lot of) trouble figuring out the best time or wind correction angle for the outbound leg. It didn’t take long to master, but I do remember thinking that I would so rarely hold that the whole thing was kind of a stupid exercise.
Little did I know.
Airline flying, especially in the Northeast, consists of more holds than one would imagine. Most of them are for weather—either weather moving through in the way of a summer thunderstorm, or as a result of weather totally muddying up the works earlier in the day. Snow plows created holding as well. Low vis will produce holds because airplanes are slow to clear the runway, and if the airport doesn’t have ground-based radar, everything takes twice as long.
Airport volume drives holding more than weather, though, and it is that kind of holding that is more unpredictable. Clear skies, low winds and…expect further clearance (EFC) times that are an hour or more away will drive you batty. They will also force a lot of diversions unless the dispatcher was able to load you up with a lot of extra fuel.
But some holds just crack you up or are “plane” unusual. More than once I had to hold (both on the ground and in flight) so that Air Force One (or One-and-a-Half [First or Second Lady] or Two) could take off or land. I once had to hold so that the Air Force Thunderbirds (or Blue Angels, I can’t remember which [and for the record, the Blue Angels are a far better show]) could finish their performance. On my last trip with Comair, I was trying to get into Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and we held for 30 minutes because the airport had to clean up some dead birds.
Apparently, there were a lot of them, small ones, that had been hit by a previous arrival and departure. I’ve also held so that airplanes dealing with an emergency could land in front of me. Perfectly understandable.
Back in the day, flying a hold could be a bit of work, and when I was learning to do it, my instructor would occasionally make me do the entry and the hold on a single radio just to keep me on my toes. When I was flying the Brasilia, we had an autopilot, but we still had to fly the turns with the heading bug. The CRJ had a flight management system, and we had an entire module of training that focused on holds. The point of that was to get the crews proficient enough to get a hold built and executed in the shortest time possible.
Once the hold was “in the box” and the pictured verified on the multifunction displays, the flight plan could be executed and the aurplane would do its magic; it would even figure out the entry, which was ironic, because nowadays the entry doesn’t really matter so long as you get established quickly. If for whatever reason the crew doesn’t like the entry, it can be over-ridden by flying the entry in a heading mode, and then joining the hold. I did that once or twice just to stick it to the aviation deities. It’s the small battles…
The flip side to getting into a hold is talking your way out of one, or better yet, out of even starting one. When I was based in New York, I became quite adept at avoiding holds altogether. Thanks to high gas prices, tankering extra fuel was frowned upon if it wasn’t deemed absolutely essential.
Diversions create work and headaches for ATC, so I learned how to be perfectly honest about our situation and tell them we simply couldn’t hold. Most of the time, they could find a way to fit us in. Sometimes they couldn’t, and we did indeed divert.
Once that happened, my dispatcher would invariably want to talk. I always smiled, and told them they would have to stand by and hold…—Chip Wright