Sometimes, a plane is required to circle around an airport repeatedly because for whatever reason, it is not able or permitted to land just yet.

This state in which a plane is stuck in the air in this way has a name, what is it?

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    $\begingroup$ It's called annoying $\endgroup$
    – Machavity
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ Fwiw, the word "circle", or "circling", in aviation, generally means something specific to instrument approach procedures, where an aircraft is executing an approach that terminates on a runway other than the intended landing runway. Better to just use the word "Waiting" - or, even better "Holding" which is actually the answer to your question. And Holding procedures are tightly defined, and they are generally not circles but oval racetrack patterns. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ I've known it be called "thermalling"; in this context, with a few failings in airmanship! $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ Back when I was writing software for UAVs we called this loitering but that might have just been us bit pushers using that terminology. $\endgroup$
    – Ukko
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Ukko Loitering is travelling (usually orbiting) at the best-endurance speed, to maximise how long you can stay there for. It's not specific to waiting to land, and you might not even be loitering in the situation described by the question (you might be burning fuel to reduce landing weight). $\endgroup$
    – Dan Hulme
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 10:46

4 Answers 4


It's called a holding pattern.

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    $\begingroup$ A "holding pattern" is a very specific type of an oval course flying over a specified fix in IFR. $\endgroup$
    – kevin
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 10:36
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    $\begingroup$ Wikipedia says "The primary use of a holding [pattern] is delaying aircraft that have arrived at their destination but cannot land yet because of traffic congestion, poor weather, or runway unavailability (for instance, during snow removal or emergencies)" which is close enough for government work. It is sometimes called "the stack". $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ Pack 'em, stack 'em, and rack 'em. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 2:45
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @TimLymington that using this term this way is common in layperson discussion and media (often used metaphorically), but I think this answer would be improved by noting the technical definition and how aircraft may well stay in the air waiting for an opportunity to land without using the specific pattern known as a holding pattern. $\endgroup$
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ As an alternative to saying it's in a holding pattern, we can simply say it's holding or on hold. That's the verb; even if we argue that a a holding pattern is a specific course used for aircraft which are held waiting for clearance. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 15:18

There is no generic name in aviation describing the state of an aircraft being hold up and unable to land. The simplest term I have in mind is "circling the airport".

Depending on the way the aircraft is circling the airspace, specific names can be used. Note that these terms carry specific technical meaning in aviation, although they may be misused by journalists in news articles.

  • Holding Pattern is an race-course pattern flown over a specific radio station or waypoint at a constant altitude. The outbound and inbound legs are 60 seconds and the turns are executed at Standard Rate Turn. A Holding Pattern is flown under IFR.
  • Traffic Pattern is a rectangular pattern flown at a low altitude around a runway. It consists of "upwind", "crosswind", "downwind" and "base" legs. A Traffic Pattern is flown under VFR.
  • 360 is a circular pattern in which the aircraft maintains a constant rate of turn. 360s are usually flown by small aircraft but rarely large airliners because small aircraft can maintain a small turn radius.

It may also be none of those: the controller may just issue heading instructions to direct the aircraft around terrain and other traffic as necessary.

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    $\begingroup$ Not sure why a 360 would need a small turn radius. They're regularly done by airliners for spacing on approach. $\endgroup$
    – Sanchises
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 14:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Sanchises I'd say the opposite. Usually if a small GA gets in the way of a large airliner landing on the same runway, the GA does a 360 and joins back behind the airliner. If an airliner does a 360 it may stray into departing traffic / traffic landing on parallel. $\endgroup$
    – kevin
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't mean on final, but say 50nm out, for last-minute spacing issues after the holding fix but before the final approach, for example near Heathrow or Schiphol it's a common occurrence. $\endgroup$
    – Sanchises
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ @kevin I think the OP just didn't realize that it doesn't actually happen over the airport itself. When you're holding for traffic in an airliner as a passenger, it's easy to forget that 10-15 minutes of flying time can actually be quite a long way away from the airport. For example, I've seen stacks of inbound aircraft holding for ATL nearly 100 miles away near Chattanooga when the ATL runways were shut down due to thunderstorms in the vicinity. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Apr 8, 2018 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ Might be worth mentioning that a 360 is commonly called an orbit in the UK (and the ICAO) $\endgroup$
    – Roman
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 2:38

Busy airports may have an established process for queuing arrivals so they can be spaced efficiently for landing. In the UK these are known as "stacks" or "holding stacks", and aircraft in them are said to be in a "holding pattern". See the Heathrow Airport website for examples of this phraseology.

Smaller airfields are unlikely to have designated stacks, but may advise aircraft to "orbit". This advises the aircraft to fly in circles either a specific number of times, or until further instruction is received. For example "G-ABCD, for spacing orbit once". See the CAA Radiotelephony Manual for official guidance as to the use of this term. An aircraft doing this could be said to be orbiting.


That’s a VFR traffic pattern. It’s a type of pattern which allows a fixed wing aircraft to transition from an arrival to sequencing for an approach to landing under visual flight rules. Airplanes practicing takeoffs and landings will enter and exit the pattern from the runway using the departure and final approach legs. Aircraft can also continue to hold over the airport in the traffic pattern for traffic separation, right of way, etc.

Other possibilities could be holding patterns, though these are generally not flown directly over an airfield, marshaling patterns or simply an aircraft practicing ground maneuvers over a non-towered airport, though this practice is frowned upon for safety reasons.

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    $\begingroup$ 5 downvotes and not a single comment? What is wrong with you people? $\endgroup$
    – Phil
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 9:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Phil I'm not one of the down voters but from experience, it'd be futile on this answer. $\endgroup$
    – Notts90
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ Can anyone here explain exactly what’s wrong with the answer? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 21:20
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    $\begingroup$ I would not call the VFR traffic pattern a state of "stuck in the air and cannot land" which the question is asking about. $\endgroup$
    – fooot
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 21:23
  • $\begingroup$ I’m not sure there is a state where an airplane is “stuck in the air and cannot land”. I’d say that it’s an observation of a VFR traffic pattern or similar marshaling or holding pattern over the airport and the author thinks that’s what’s going on. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 14:01

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