At a busy airport, up to a dozen aircraft waiting to land may fly the same holding pattern at the same time, separated vertically by 1,000ft. — a stack. Some ATC towers have dedicated Stack Controllers.

It's all very routine, but have there ever been any instances of incidents or accidents in stacks?

To the layman, it might seem like stacks could be hazardous — e.g. what if a plane in the middle of a stack lost an engine?

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    $\begingroup$ if a plane lost an engine he'd declare emergency and get out the stack, and get priority to land (which they can because well emergency) $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2014 at 1:41
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    $\begingroup$ Most twin engine commercial aircraft are capable of sustained flight on a single engine. Its very unlikely a plane in the middle of the stack would suddenly plummet through the stack vertically. Most likely the emergency aircraft would separate laterally and then get priority clearance to land. $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2014 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ I think he means that engines will hit planes below in the stack! $\endgroup$
    – Bassinator
    Nov 15, 2014 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ @HCBPshenanigans That's not what I meant :D $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2014 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ that's what the 1k feet buffer is for, if a plane starts dropping he can get cleared to get out of the stack before he is in the path of the ones below $\endgroup$ Nov 15, 2014 at 20:53

2 Answers 2


The article you linked in your question mentions one incident - loss of separation - that's described in more detail here.

The Aviation Herald is a good source of information on incidents and accidents but it has very few reports related to holding. There are several about low-fuel incidents because aircraft had to remain in the hold for a long time (Avianca 52 is a well-known case), but I could only find one that involved a holding pattern more directly and that was also a loss of separation resolved via a TCAS advisory.

Eastern Airlines 401 crashed while in a hold, but it was an ad hoc holding pattern and not in a stack with other aircraft. American Eagle 4184 crashed due to icing accumulation while holding but again there were no other aircraft involved.

I could only find one example of an actual collision in a holding pattern which was over New York in 1960 and in that case only one of the aircraft was holding (inaccurately).


There has been at least one instance of an accident inside a multiply-occupied holding stack. Fortunately, none of the other aircraft in the stack became involved in the accident sequence.

On 8 December 1963, PA214, a 707-120 en route from San Juan to Philadelphia via Baltimore, entered a holding pattern with five other aircraft already in it due to a squall line hovering over Philadelphia. Sixteen minutes after entering the stack, the aircraft was struck by lightning, which caused a series of fuel-tank explosions, which caused the aircraft to crash. At least one of the five other aircraft in the stack saw the burning aircraft falling to the ground, but none of the five were actually struck by the accident aircraft or the detached debris therefrom.

To quote the CAB report:

[...] Flight 214 reported over the New Castle VOR at 2042, 5,000 feet [sic] and control was then transferred to Philadelphia Approach Control which provided the crew with the following:

“... Philadelphia weather, now, seven hundred scattered, measured eight hundred broken, one thousand overcast, six miles (visibility) with rain shower, altimeter two nine four five, the surface wind is two hundred and eighty degrees at twenty (knots) with gusts to thirty (knots). I’ve got five aircraft, have elected to hold until this ... extreme winds have passed, ... do you wish to be cleared for an approach or would you like to hold until the squall line ... passes Philadelphia, over?

The crew advised Philadelphia they would hold and were instructed to hold west of New Castle VOR on the 270[°] radial and given an expected approach clearance time of 2110. The crew requested and received permission to use two minute legs in the holding pattern. At 2050:45 the crew advised Philadelphia they were ready to start an approach. They were told to continue to hold and they would be cleared as soon as possible. The crew acknowledged with “Roger, no hurry, just wanted you to know that ... we’ll accept a clearance.” Approximately eight minutes later, at 2058:56 the following transmission was heard on the Philadelphia Approach Control frequency 124.6 “MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY ... Clipper 214 out of control. Here we go.” Seconds later another transmission on the same frequency was heard “Clipper 214 is going down in flames.” This latter transmission was made by the first officer of National Airlines Flight 16 (NAL 16). ... NAL 16 was in the same holding pattern as Flight 214 but 1,000 feet higher, and the first officer had seen the Pan American flight descending on fire. [Page 3; emphasis mine.]


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