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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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Back to Basics
Weight and Balance
By Jay Wischkaemper

It’s confession time. Let’s see the hands of everyone who will not leave the ground without doing a proper weight and balance. About one in 20? That’s about what I thought. Now, let’s see the hands of everyone who has ever seen another pilot perform a weight and balance before the flight. Let’s see. One out of 300. That’s about right. Now, let’s see the hands of all those who would be dead if someone put a gun to their head and said they were going to shoot them if they couldn’t show them the proper way to do a weight and balance. About four out of five of you should admit to that one.

While it may be covered under that ubiquitous FAR concerning doing everything to make sure the flight can be conducted safely, it’s safe to conclude that weight and balance is one of the most overlooked aspects of flying. There are some who might pay more attention to it than others. I understand that pilots of V-Tail Doctor Killers had better pay attention. I’ve also read that pilots of 182’s and Cherokee-Sixes don’t need to be as concerned. But let’s face it. You can load any airplane wrong and it will crash. Seems like the pilots of a 707 learned that in Miami a few years ago.

Shortly after Dr. Tim Williams became a partner in our Bellanca, he called me and said, “I’ve been doing a weight and balance on this plane, and it appears that if you have four people on board and full fuel, you’ll be beyond the aft c.g.. Is that right?” “Beats me,” I told him. “I’ve never done one.” “What I do know is that I’ve had four big folks on board with full fuel and it flew.” And it did. I’ve done it several times with no clue as to what the charts would show. I don’t think we were too far off, but I didn’t know for sure on the c.g.. Addition and subtraction is easy enough, so I was pretty sure on the weight, but balance? That’s another matter. The guy we bought the plane from told me it would be ok, and I believed him.

One of the problems with doing a weight and balance is that the things are so complicated. Moment and arm and datum. What is all this stuff? If somebody would just simplify the process. You say something like “If Bubba is the pilot, and he weights 250, and Charlie is in the right seat, and he weighs 220, and if Martha and Myrtle are in the back seat, and they weigh 375 together, and you have 100 pounds of luggage, and you try to fly that bugger, you better make sure your will is current, because you’re about to use it.” That language I can understand. It makes much more of an impact than all those charts and graphs and lines.

With all the computer technology that’s out there, you’d think that at least the manufacturers of new airplanes would come up with an automated system. They could put an electronic scale in each seat. Same with the luggage. Fuel sensors detect how much fuel is on board and where. Everything is calculated by a computer, which plays “Lord I’m coming home” if the airplane won’t fly. That should get people’s attention.

It’s probably a good thing that I took my check ride with old Earl Sharp in a Cessna 150. It’s good because Earl wasn’t too strict anyway, and it’s also good because there’s not a lot of c.g. questions you can ask about weight and balance on a 150. Seems to me like he asked something about whether or not I had checked the weight, but at least the question about how much weight we could put in the back seat was moot, and he didn’t ask about luggage. Gratefully, he also didn’t ask me to do a weight and balance problem for him. If he had, I’d probably still be a student pilot.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have done a weight and balance. About a year and a half ago, Robin, John and I were going to Houston. Robin was kind of short on experience and confidence in the plane, so he invited along some company. Robin was flying, because he was paying for the gas, or rather one of his clients was. John was riding front seat to keep us all safe from Robin, and I was relegated to the back. Sitting there, I noticed the operations manual in the seat back in front of me, and since it had been a while since I had perused it in detail, I decided to do so. I came across the section on weight and balance, and decided to try to do one. Pulling out my trusty pocket calculator, I plugged in the numbers, only to find out that when we took off, we were 100 pounds over gross, and a couple of inches past the aft c.g., assuming I knew what I was doing, which might be questionable. I didn’t bother Robin with my newfound knowledge. It would have just depressed him.

That’s not to say that I’ve never had c.g. concerns. About a year ago, my daughter and two of her friends went on a “road trip” to Waco. On the way back, in the little town of Clifton, Texas, a little old lady on her way to church (if they had been in church where they belonged it wouldn’t have happened), ran a stop sign and hit them. Nobody hurt, but that car wasn’t driving home. Clifton is about six hours from Lubbock, so for someone to drive to get them would have been a long adventure. The obvious solution was for me to fly down.

Since it was a Sunday, I knew that the probability of fuel being available in a town like Clifton was iffy at best. Even if it hadn’t been a Sunday, it would have been iffy. Accordingly, I topped off every tank before I left. I climbed out on the left, burned the 15 gallon aux tank for one hour, which should have almost burned it dry, and landed on the right.

There are a couple rules of flying etiquette that need mentioned here. Rule number one is that when daddy is the pilot, you always get to ride shotgun. Rule number two is that you never ask a big woman to do anything that would reveal that you noticed how big she is, at least not if you value your health.

There are times in life when you can’t win. You see, Susan is a big girl. She’s not fat. She’s just big. Put another 30 pounds on her and she can play middle linebacker. I had this gut feeling that Susan should be up front with me, but she dutifully climbed in the back where any passenger who isn’t related to the pilot is supposed to be. Trying to justify taking off with her there, I reasoned that Lisa and Sara were about the same weight, and that hopefully I weighed about the same as Susan, or at least close. That should balance, I thought. The aux tank, which sits under the rear seat, was empty. They hadn’t taken a lot of luggage with them. We should be ok.

Having flown the plane with weight in the back before, I was expecting the plane to fly differently. I had a little extra nose down trim cranked in. The pull on the yoke to make it fly would be a lot less. I was ready.

Liftoff was smooth and the plane flew normally. I had told myself that if anything at all didn’t feel right, I was setting it back down, but everything was fine. The climb was slow due to the load and the 90 degree temperature, but otherwise normal. The fun began when I started to trim the nose down to level off. The trim tab, which is on the top of the cabin in a Bellanca, stopped turning after a couple of turns. My immediate thought was that the trim mechanism had jammed, but when I looked up at the ceiling, I noticed the problem was something quite different. The trim tab was at its full nose down stop. There was nothing wrong with the trim. I had just run out of it.

I pushed forward on the yoke, and the nose came down and stayed down. Everything was still under control, and the closer we got to home, the more normal the trim became.
I had flown the plane before with four big people on board, but never with two little people and two big people. My assumption that everything would be the same wasn’t true. Everything turned out ok, but it could have been a recipe for disaster.

So have I started doing a weight and balance before every takeoff? Of course not. Most of the time, I’m the only person on board, and it hardly seems necessary. Even with two on board, I’m not sure I would learn a lot. But the next time I have four on board? Well, I might be more prone to dusting off that old book and seeing if I can figure out some of those graphs.
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