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Sometimes in my free time I play Endless ATC, a game where one acts as the approach and departure controller. In the game (as in real life) the controller is forced to put planes in a holding stack, separated vertically by 1000 feet.

Is this vertical separation - 1000 feet - enough on its own to prevent one plane's wake turbulence from affecting the plane immediately below? Or is it possible that I've accidentally had planes fly in each other's wake turbulence?

If so/if not, then what's the minimum vertical separation necessary to ensure one plane's wake turbulence doesn't affect the next plane in the holding stack?

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The minimum vertical separation in a holding stack is no different from the minimal vertical separation used elsewhere. This is almost universally 1000 feet. In countries where Reduced Vertical Separation Minima (RVSM) has not been implemented, 2000 feet of vertical separation is required above FL290. 2000 feet is also needed if a non-RVSM equipped aircraft (such as certain older military planes) is flying above FL290. However, not many holding stacks grow to above FL290.

A point to consider is the fact that aircraft produce the most wake turbulence when they are flying slowly for landing. So since 1000 feet is enough during approach, it should also be plenty in a holding stack.

There has been some evidence that 1000 feet of vertical separation may not be enough for certain, heavy aircraft types. In 2017, a Challenger jet had an accident after passing 1000 feet below an Airbus A380 during cruise, presumably because the smaller business jet hit the wake turbulence from the A380. See AVHerald for details. However, this has not (yet) resulted in changed separation minima.

1000 feet is not enough to prevent planes from "flying in each other's wake turbulence" as you say, but in most cases it should be enough to ensure that the wake turbulence has weakened enough to not pose any threat to the lower aircraft. Also remember that wind can have a significant effect on the spread and dissipation of wake turbulence, so on days with a certain wind direction and velocity, the wake turbulence may survive longer than other days.

But the answer to your question remains the same: the vertical separation to be applied in a holding stack (below FL290 and during RVSM) is 1000 feet.

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From some of the ATC feeds I've seen transcribed controllers seem to prefer 2000 feet separation.

Which makes sense if you consider that airplanes aren't going to hold on the exact altitude (which would then lead to violation of separation) and think about what can happen to airplanes in a holding stack.

Using 2000' separation also lets the controller move the entire stack down 1000' in a single series of commands instead of needing to wait until each aircraft has descended to its new altitude.

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    $\begingroup$ Downvoted because this answer suggests 2000' separation is needed, which is factually incorrect. $\endgroup$ – J. Hougaard Jan 28 at 18:43
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The minimum separation in a holding stack is still 1.000ft. Given that wake turbulence vortices move with the wind direction, you would have to fly the holding pattern with a direct headwind or tailwind to hit one. Or your speed difference between two aircraft in the same pattern by pure chance correlates to the wind speed and direction. If you have enough space, you can surely work with 2.000ft, but 1.000ft will remain the minimum separation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not doubting you, just wondering if "The minimum separation in a holding stack is still 1.000ft." is jurisdiction specific? $\endgroup$ – FreeMan Jan 28 at 14:53
  • $\begingroup$ As far as I know, the 1.000ft are ICAO specific, so it should apply across all jurisdiction that operate under ICAO. At least I have not heard of any other country using less than 1.000ft in non-RVSM airspace, let alone in RVSM Airspace. icao.int/safety/fsix/Library/AppendixG_to_Part-91.pdf $\endgroup$ – SentryRaven Jan 29 at 6:50

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