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A Weighty Matter

by Patricia Mattison
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

As the Safety Program Manager I have the opportunity to talk to air carrier operators as well as the passengers who trust their lives to those operators. History has shown that weight and balance problems do exist, especially for smaller single engine aircraft. However, getting actual weights of passengers can be a problem. Most people are not too happy about 'fessing up the few extra pounds that they carry on their bodies. In order to illustrate the situation I am going to confess that it has happened to me. It was several years ago when I owned a charter service.

The mother and sister of a man, who worked for the company that I flew for as their corporate pilot, were flying into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). He scheduled me to go to Hawthorn Airport (it was impossible to get clearance into LAX at the time) to pick them up. He was a rather large fellow. When asked how much he weighed he stated that he weighed 180 pounds. Looking at him I rather doubted that. I asked him what his mother and sister weighed and how much luggage they were bringing with them. He said they were small women and were traveling very light. Accepting his word on it we launched to Hawthorn.

We should be fine on weight and balance, I thought as I waited and waited. Being bored at the time I ran the weight and balance numbers as I remembered the man telling me they w e re. Weights were as follows: me, 114, him, 180, mother, 120, sister, 120, and about 50 pounds of baggage. So far so good, that is until I saw the travelers and their escort return to the ramp.

His mother was about 5'2' and about as wide, I guessed 190 maybe, feeling generous. His sister was not far behind maybe 5'3' and best guess about 160. But the 'light' baggage took my breath away. Two small hand carried overnight bags, two clothes bags, (stuffed to the max) two large suitcases, carried by the fellow who hired me and huge handbags that looked like the only thing left behind was good sense. Okay, so we're at max gross weight or so. We had burned off some fuel, but not much on the 30-minute flight to Hawthorn.

I was in trouble!

I pulled the at least 210 pound, that said he weighed 180, guy aside. I explained to him, 'We can't take all the luggage and passengers on one trip. I can come back in a few minutes for you.' His reply was to turn to his mother and sister and speaking in German, which I do not understand, said something that had them shouting and shaking their heads in an obvious gesture, that I did understand. He turned back to me and shrugging his shoulders said, 'Sorry, they won't hear of my staying here and they won't leave their baggage here to get stolen.' I could understand that!

You know the mistake that you once made (I am speaking in the universal you) that made you a believer? Well, it was my turn. Trusting my flying ability'if not my judgment'I loaded, pushed, and crammed the baggage in the aft baggage compartment and wedged the passengers past the front seat and into the back seat, each holding HUGE handbags, the overnight cases placed on the floor in front of them. I extended the seat belts to their max and secure d them on mom and sis, said a fervent prayer to the lift god, and taxied for take off.

Having watched me load the Cessna 172RG the tower was curious and asked 'Are you sure you want to do this?' I said, 'If I don't have lift off by the last 2,000 feet of runway, I will abort.' At almost 5,000 feet of runway available I felt I could do it. Cocky, wasn't I.

It was 70 degrees at 66 feet of elevation, so trusting the old wives' tale of a built in 50% fudge factor I planned for a short field takeoff procedure. Ten degrees of flaps, lean the mixture, and hold the brakes as power came in. Releasing the brakes, we were rolling and rolling and rolling. There were buildings at the end of the runway, getting bigger and bigger. Just about the time I was ready to abort the takeoff, the RG lifted off in ground effect and then began a sloooow climb. Obviously we missed the buildings'barely. Probably scaring ten years of life off the occupants, I'm sure that my passengers were none too relaxed.

Gear up, climb, albeit slowly, to 3,000 feet and aim for home. I was so grateful for whatever sheer luck element, prayers, or fudge factor Cessna had built into this aircraft The decision to go ahead and take off with that load was a very stupid thing to do. If I had known the actual weight of the passengers and baggage, I would have taken the Cessna 210 for the trip. Not only was it capable of carrying more, but also at the time the 210's fuel tanks were half full, more than enough for the trip. I learned the hard way not to sway to the egos of my passengers, and ask for actual weights. If I suspected that folks were not quite truthful about their weight, I would have them use the scale I later kept in the baggage compartment. Explaining how important it was to have an accurate weight and balance.

Never again comes to mind. I really did learn from that exciting episode in my life that computing an accurate weight and balance is a lifesaver.

This brings to mind an old story here in Alaska that goes like this.

Some hunters hired an aircraft and pilot to take them hunting near a lake. The agreement was that the pilot would return in three days to pick them up. Three days passed and the floatplane landed on the lake and water taxied over to the hunters. The hunt had been a success and they had bagged a moose. The pilot said to the hunters 'I can't take you and your gear and the moose on one trip.' The hunters argued with the pilot and said, 'Joe did it last year. We all have to go because we have a flight home to catch. Come on load the airplane'. The pilot figuring that if Joe did it last year it must be okay, so he loaded the airplane, moose and all. He taxied to the end of the lake and gave the plane full power. Lifting off he could see that he wasn't going to clear the trees. Sure enough the plane crashed in the woods. The pilot was okay and so were the hunters. The pilot felt bad about the crash and said so to the hunters. Their reply was, 'That's okay you got further than Joe did last year.'

Patricia Mattison is the Safety Program Manager at the Juneau Flight Standards District Office.

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