How We Got Stuck In A Non-Standard Holding Pattern On Our Flight To LGA

by joeheg

During our whirlwind trip to New York, we flew into LaGuardia Airport (LGA) while Hurricane Ian was exiting the NY Tri-State area. While we felt fortunate to even make the trip with only minor disruptions, we did hit a hiccup during our flight to LGA.

As we approached the Northeast, the pilot came on the PA system and notified us that due to the weather, there was limited runway access to LaGuardia and we’d be in a holding pattern until we were cleared by Air Traffic Control to land.

a map of the world

While I’ve been in similar situations before, I wanted to know more about holding patterns and if there are any rules that pilots need to follow when placed into one.

To put it into layman’s terms, imagine a traffic jam where you can’t slow down your car. Instead, every car is directed onto a nearby racetrack to drive in a circle until they’re cleared, one at a time, to exit onto the reduced lanes of the freeway. Of course, every car behind them is not allowed to leave because of the traffic jam.

That’s a holding pattern if you’re already in the air, or a ground stop if you haven’t left the airport.

While a normal holding pattern will have the pilot make a series of right turns, there are instances where Air Traffic Control will have a pilot enter an “irregular” holding pattern including left-hand turns. That’s exactly what happened on our trip to New York.

When I went to check out the flight path on FlightAware, I was impressed with how our pilot was able to make a wider loop on the 1st pass and then almost exactly trace the same path for 3 circles before exiting when cleared to land at LGA.

a green line in a circle

You need to remember that we were flying over a storm with varying wind speeds in each direction but we managed to keep each side of the pattern the same distance. Job well done to the crew of our Delta flight.

While I’ve been on flights stuck in a holding pattern before, I’ve never been able to track them in real time. Now that I know a little more about the rules and the adjustments the pilots need to make to keep a plane flying in a perfect oval, I have even more respect for their ability to control a metal tube floating in the sky.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary


PDT October 5, 2022 - 6:23 pm

I am surprised that you didn’t go to Allentown… or divert to JFK. Either of those is the norm for me.

RetiredATLATC October 5, 2022 - 6:32 pm

Job well done by the flight computer, very little to do with the pilots.

My handle says it all.

joeheg October 5, 2022 - 6:40 pm

I’ve since learned that the flight computer handles all of the turns.

kavya November 15, 2022 - 3:55 am

I am surprised that you didn’t go to Allentown…


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