The standard inbound/outbound holding leg are 1 min leg each (no wind condition). I noticed that a distance (4 nm in the following example) is noted in many GPS approaches. Do we need to fly the leg as 4 nm, or the number conveys other meanings?

E.g. http://flightaware.com/resources/airport/TCY/IAP/RNAV+(GPS)+RWY+12/pdf RNAV (GPS) RWY 12 - TCY


3 Answers 3


Short Answer:

Yes, the pilot is expected to fly the hold as depicted, with an outbound leg based on distance (see AIM 5-3-7, paragraph b). Most holds depicted on GPS instrument approaches in the US now have a specified distance for the outbound hold leg, instead of a timed leg.

Longer Answer:

The traditional hold leg distance is determined by timing. See AIM 5-3-7 § j. 4.:

4. Timing.

(a) Inbound Leg.

(1) At or below 14,000 feet MSL: 1 minute.

(2) Above 14,000 feet MSL: 11/2 minutes.

NOTE- The initial outbound leg should be flown for 1 minute or 1 1/2 minutes (appropriate to altitude). Timing for subsequent outbound legs should be adjusted, as necessary, to achieve proper inbound leg time. Pilots may use any navigational means available; i.e., DME, RNAV, etc., to ensure the appropriate inbound leg times.

(b) Outbound leg timing begins over/abeam the fix, whichever occurs later. If the abeam position cannot be determined, start timing when turn to outbound is completed.

In years past this was common for all holds, unless otherwise specified by the published hold instructions, or by ATC. All otherwise unspecified holds were assumed to be timed holds, including for GPS approaches. I only remember a few distance-defined holds in my local area from 10 years ago; now all those holds associated with GPS instrument approaches are distance defined.

Which brings us to the AIM 5-3-7 § j. 5. (emphasis on the last two sentences is mine):

5. Distance Measuring Equipment (DME)/ GPS Along-Track Distance (ATD). DME/GPS holding is subject to the same entry and holding procedures except that distances (nautical miles) are used in lieu of time values. The outbound course of the DME/GPS holding pattern is called the outbound leg of the pattern. The controller or the instrument approach procedure chart will specify the length of the outbound leg. The end of the outbound leg is determined by the DME or ATD readout. The holding fix on conventional procedures, or controller defined holding based on a conventional navigation aid with DME, is a specified course or radial and distances are from the DME station for both the inbound and outbound ends of the holding pattern. When flying published GPS overlay or stand alone procedures with distance specified, the holding fix will be a waypoint in the database and the end of the outbound leg will be determined by the ATD. Some GPS overlay and early stand alone procedures may have timing specified.

See also AIM Fig 5-3-7 and the associated note, which address the type of distance holds found on GPS approaches:

AIM Fig 5-3-7

NOTE- The inbound course is always toward the waypoint and the ATD is zero at the waypoint. The end of the outbound leg of the holding pattern is reached when the ATD reads the specified distance.

The holds found on GPS approaches will generally be distance based. The AIM states that some might still be time based, but I am no longer aware of any such holds in actuality. Every approach that I know of that used to have a time based hold on a GPS approach now has a distance based hold.

All holds should be flown as published or as instructed by ATC. If ATC does not instruct you otherwise, you are expected to fly the hold as published. In this case, that means you are expected to fly the hold as a distance-based hold. If you are not sure how you should fly the hold, ask ATC. They will provide you with the complete holding instructions if requested. See AIM 5-3-7 § b.:

b. If the holding pattern is charted and the controller doesn't issue complete holding instructions, the pilot is expected to hold as depicted on the appropriate chart. When the pattern is charted, the controller may omit all holding instructions except the charted holding direction and the statement AS PUBLISHED; e.g., HOLD EAST AS PUBLISHED. Controllers shall always issue complete holding instructions when pilots request them.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If the question is "do you have to fly the full distance indicated in the hold?", the answer is no, per a 2011 FAA legal interpretation. See below. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @fosterboondoggle That is not the question. The question is whether particular holds should be flown as timed OR distance legs. The AIM states that the pilot is expected to fly the hold as published. The FAA states, as you quote, that the pilot is not required to fly the full distance leg, i.e, will not be violated merely for omitting such an action. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 20:02
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    $\begingroup$ J Walters - the reason for my comment was that if you search on google "do you have to fly the full distance indicated in the hold", this answer comes up with the top hit prominently excerpted as "short answer: yes". I understand that that may not be the intention of the original question, but that might be why it has 6000+ views, and I suspect that other readers (like myself originally) may be misled. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 2:52

Yes. The number denotes the distance of the holding pattern. From FAA Instrument Flying Handbook:

DME and IFR-certified GPS equipment offer some additional options for holding. Rather than being based on time, the leg lengths for DME/GPS holding patterns are based on distances in nautical miles. These patterns use the same entry and holding procedures as conventional holding patterns.


[Modifying per Michael Hall's comments]

If the question is "do you have to fly the full distance indicated in the hold?", the answer is no. (But if it's just about timing vs. distance then ¯_(ツ)_/¯.)

I realize this is old, but since it's currently the top hit on google for the question "do you have to fly the distance shown on a depicted hold" I think it's worth revisiting. Google pulls out the accepted reply as "Short answer: yes" at the top of the search result. This appears to be incorrect. Another site led me to the "Young-HHC-2011" letter from the FAA, which among other things answers this question a bit differently from the accepted answer. Quoting from the letter:

... it is permissible, without specific ATC clearance, to shorten published outbound DME legs in a holding pattern as long as the issued holding pattern leg length is not exceeded.

[emphasis mine]

It goes on to say that you have to comply with required leg lengths if ATC tells you to. (No surprise there.) But for those of us flying bug smashers at 90 kts on approach, this seems useful.

  • $\begingroup$ The OP is not asking whether it is permissible to shorten the leg, they are asking about the basis of the depicted hold. I.e. whether it is based on distance, or whether timing is still expected, but distance is shown just for reference. Your answer is useful, but the short answer to the base question should be "yes". $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 15:46
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall are you sure? I read "Do we need to fly the leg as 4 nm, or the number conveys other meanings?" as "do we need to fly 4 nm"? The accepted answer is "the pilot is expected to fly the hold as depicted, with an outbound leg based on distance" which is not strictly correct even though that's what the AIM seems to say pretty literally. The interpretation lettter says you can fly less than the 4nm (or whatever - I saw a 7 nm HILPT the other day). $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 15:58
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall, I also got to this by searching for answers on whether you have to fly the full distance depicted, and this post has been viewed a gazillion times. Maybe everyone's looking for answers to your version, but I somewhat suspect not since the accepted answer is right from the AIM. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ I agree the question is poorly worded. Perhaps I will chime more in later... $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 16:31
  • $\begingroup$ But yes, I am confident in my interpretation. The title question specifically calls out timing vs distance, not shorter distance. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2021 at 16:52

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