Aircraft Weight and Balance (Part One)

The aircraft’s weight and balance data is important information for a pilot that must be frequently reevaluated. Although the aircraft was weighed during the certification process, this information is not valid indefinitely. Equipment changes or modifications affect the weight and balance data. Too often pilots reduce the aircraft weight and balance into a rule of thumb, such as: “If I have three passengers, I can load only 100 gallons of fuel; four passengers, 70 gallons.”

 

Weight and balance computations should be part of every preflight briefing. Never assume three passengers are always of equal weight. Instead, do a full computation of all items to be loaded on the aircraft, including baggage, as well as the pilot and passenger. It is recommended that all bags be weighed to make a precise computation of how the aircraft CG is positioned.

The importance of the CG was stressed in the discussion of stability, controllability, and performance. Unequal load distribution causes accidents. A competent pilot understands and respects the effects of CG on an aircraft.

Weight and balance are critical components in the utilization of an aircraft to its fullest potential. The pilot must know how much fuel can be loaded onto the aircraft without violating CG limits, as well as weight limits to conduct long or short flights with or without a full complement of allowable passengers. For example, an aircraft has four seats and can carry 60 gallons of fuel. How many passengers can the aircraft safely carry? Can all those seats be occupied at all times with the varying fuel loads? Four people who each weigh 150 pounds leads to a different weight and balance computation than four people who each weigh 200 pounds. The second scenario loads an additional 200 pounds onto the aircraft and is equal to about 30 gallons of fuel.

The additional weight may or may not place the CG outside of the CG envelope, but the maximum gross weight could be exceeded. The excess weight can overstress the aircraft and degrade the performance.

Aircraft are certificated for weight and balance for two principal reasons:

  1. The effect of the weight on the aircraft’s primary structure and its performance characteristics
  2. The effect of the location of this weight on flight characteristics, particularly in stall and spin recovery and stability
 

Aircraft, such as balloons and weight-shift control, do not require weight and balance computations because the load is suspended below the lifting mechanism. The CG range in these types of aircraft is such that it is difficult to exceed loading limits. For example, the rear seat position and fuel of a weight-shift control aircraft are as close as possible to the hang point with the aircraft in a suspended attitude. Thus, load variations have little effect on the CG. This also holds true for the balloon basket or gondola. While it is difficult to exceed CG limits in these aircraft, pilots should never overload an aircraft because overloading causes structural damage and failures. Weight and balance computations are not required, but pilots should calculate weight and remain within the manufacturer’s established limit.

Effect of Weight on Flight Performance

The takeoff/climb and landing performance of an aircraft are determined on the basis of its maximum allowable takeoff and landing weights. A heavier gross weight results in a longer takeoff run and shallower climb, and a faster touchdown speed and longer landing roll. Even a minor overload may make it impossible for the aircraft to clear an obstacle that normally would not be a problem during takeoff under more favorable conditions.

The detrimental effects of overloading on performance are not limited to the immediate hazards involved with takeoffs and landings. Overloading has an adverse effect on all climb and cruise performance, which leads to overheating during climbs, added wear on engine parts, increased fuel consumption, slower cruising speeds, and reduced range.

The manufacturers of modern aircraft furnish weight and balance data with each aircraft produced. Generally, this information may be found in the FAA-approved AFM/POH and easy-to-read charts for determining weight and balance data are now provided. Increased performance and load-carrying capability of these aircraft require strict adherence to the operating limitations prescribed by the manufacturer. Deviations from the recommendations can result in structural damage or complete failure of the aircraft’s structure. Even if an aircraft is loaded well within the maximum weight limitations, it is imperative that weight distribution be within the limits of CG location. The preceding brief study of aerodynamics and load factors points out the reasons for this precaution. The following discussion is background information into some of the reasons why weight and balance conditions are important to the safe flight of an aircraft.

In some aircraft, it is not possible to fill all seats, baggage compartments, and fuel tanks, and still remain within approved weight or balance limits. For example, in several popular four-place aircraft, the fuel tanks may not be filled to capacity when four occupants and their baggage are carried. In a certain two-place aircraft, no baggage may be carried in the compartment aft of the seats when spins are to be practiced. It is important for a pilot to be aware of the weight and balance limitations of the aircraft being flown and the reasons for these limitations.

 

Effect of Weight on Aircraft Structure

The effect of additional weight on the wing structure of an aircraft is not readily apparent. Airworthiness requirements prescribe that the structure of an aircraft certificated in the normal category (in which acrobatics are prohibited) must be strong enough to withstand a load factor of 3.8 Gs to take care of dynamic loads caused by maneuvering and gusts. This means that the primary structure of the aircraft can withstand a load of 3.8 times the approved gross weight of the aircraft without structural failure occurring. If this is accepted as indicative of the load factors that may be imposed during operations for which the aircraft is intended, a 100-pound overload imposes a potential structural overload of 380 pounds. The same consideration is even more impressive in the case of utility and acrobatic category aircraft, which have load factor requirements of 4.4 and 6.0, respectively.

Structural failures that result from overloading may be dramatic and catastrophic, but more often they affect structural components progressively in a manner that is difficult to detect and expensive to repair. Habitual overloading tends to cause cumulative stress and damage that may not be detected during preflight inspections and result in structural failure later during completely normal operations. The additional stress placed on structural parts by overloading is believed to accelerate the occurrence of metallic fatigue failures.

A knowledge of load factors imposed by flight maneuvers and gusts emphasizes the consequences of an increase in the gross weight of an aircraft. The structure of an aircraft about to undergo a load factor of 3 Gs, as in recovery from a steep dive, must be prepared to withstand an added load of 300 pounds for each 100-pound increase in weight. It should be noted that this would be imposed by the addition of about 16 gallons of unneeded fuel in a particular aircraft. FAA-certificated civil aircraft have been analyzed structurally and tested for flight at the maximum gross weight authorized and within the speeds posted for the type of flights to be performed. Flights at weights in excess of this amount are quite possible and often are well within the performance capabilities of an aircraft. This fact should not mislead the pilot, as the pilot may not realize that loads for which the aircraft was not designed are being imposed on all or some part of the structure.

In loading an aircraft with either passengers or cargo, the structure must be considered. Seats, baggage compartments, and cabin floors are designed for a certain load or concentration of load and no more. For example, a light plane baggage compartment may be placarded for 20 pounds because of the limited strength of its supporting structure even though the aircraft may not be overloaded or out of CG limits with more weight at that location.