Aircraft Weight Control

As discussed in Aerodynamics of Flight, weight is the force with which gravity attracts a body toward the center of the Earth. It is a product of the mass of a body and the acceleration acting on the body. Weight is a major factor in aircraft construction and operation and demands respect from all pilots.

The force of gravity continuously attempts to pull an aircraft down toward Earth. The force of lift is the only force that counteracts weight and sustains an aircraft in flight. The amount of lift produced by an airfoil is limited by the airfoil design, angle of attack (AOA), airspeed, and air density. To assure that the lift generated is sufficient to counteract weight, loading an aircraft beyond the manufacturer’s recommended weight must be avoided. If the weight is greater than the lift generated, the aircraft may be incapable of flight.


Effects of Weight

Any item aboard an aircraft that increases the total weight is undesirable for performance. Manufacturers attempt to make an aircraft as light as possible without sacrificing strength or safety.

The pilot should always be aware of the consequences of overloading. An overloaded aircraft may not be able to leave the ground, or if it does become airborne, it may exhibit unexpected and unusually poor flight characteristics. If not properly loaded, the initial indication of poor performance usually takes place during takeoff.

Excessive weight reduces the flight performance in almost every respect. For example, the most important performance deficiencies of an overloaded aircraft are:

  • Higher takeoff speed
  • Longer takeoff run
  • Reduced rate and angle of climb
  • Lower maximum altitude
  • Shorter range
  • Reduced cruising speed
  • Reduced maneuverability
  • Higher stalling speed
  • Higher approach and landing speed
  • Longer landing roll
  • Excessive weight on the nose wheel or tail wheel

The pilot must be knowledgeable about the effect of weight on the performance of the particular aircraft being flown. Preflight planning should include a check of performance charts to determine if the aircraft’s weight may contribute to hazardous flight operations. Excessive weight in itself reduces the safety margins available to the pilot and becomes even more hazardous when other performance-reducing factors are combined with excess weight. The pilot must also consider the consequences of an overweight aircraft if an emergency condition arises. If an engine fails on takeoff or airframe ice forms at low altitude, it is usually too late to reduce an aircraft’s weight to keep it in the air.


Weight Changes

The operating weight of an aircraft can be changed by simply altering the fuel load. Gasoline has considerable weight—6 pounds per gallon. Thirty gallons of fuel may weigh more than one passenger. If a pilot lowers airplane weight by reducing fuel, the resulting decrease in the range of the airplane must be taken into consideration during flight planning. During flight, fuel burn is normally the only weight change that takes place. As fuel is used, an aircraft becomes lighter and performance is improved.

Changes of fixed equipment have a major effect upon the weight of an aircraft. The installation of extra radios or instruments, as well as repairs or modifications, may also affect the weight of an aircraft.