Load Factors (Part One)

In aerodynamics, the maximum load factor (at given bank angle) is a proportion between lift and weight and has a trigonometric relationship. The load factor is measured in Gs (acceleration of gravity), a unit of force equal to the force exerted by gravity on a body at rest and indicates the force to which a body is subjected when it is accelerated. Any force applied to an aircraft to deflect its flight from a straight line produces a stress on its structure. The amount of this force is the load factor. While a course in aerodynamics is not a prerequisite for obtaining a pilot’s license, the competent pilot should have a solid understanding of the forces that act on the aircraft, the advantageous use of these forces, and the operating limitations of the aircraft being flown.


For example, a load factor of 3 means the total load on an aircraft’s structure is three times its weight. Since load factors are expressed in terms of Gs, a load factor of 3 may be spoken of as 3 Gs, or a load factor of 4 as 4 Gs.

If an aircraft is pulled up from a dive, subjecting the pilot to 3 Gs, he or she would be pressed down into the seat with a force equal to three times his or her weight. Since modern aircraft operate at significantly higher speeds than older aircraft, increasing the potential for large load factors, this effect has become a primary consideration in the design of the structure of all aircraft.

With the structural design of aircraft planned to withstand only a certain amount of overload, a knowledge of load factors has become essential for all pilots. Load factors are important for two reasons:

  1. It is possible for a pilot to impose a dangerous overload on the aircraft structures.
  2. An increased load factor increases the stalling speed and makes stalls possible at seemingly safe flight speeds.

Load Factors in Aircraft Design

The answer to the question “How strong should an aircraft be?” is determined largely by the use to which the aircraft is subjected. This is a difficult problem because the maximum possible loads are much too high for use in efficient design. It is true that any pilot can make a very hard landing or an extremely sharp pull up from a dive, which would result in abnormal loads. However, such extremely abnormal loads must be dismissed somewhat if aircraft are built that take off quickly, land slowly, and carry worthwhile payloads.

The problem of load factors in aircraft design becomes how to determine the highest load factors that can be expected in normal operation under various operational situations. These load factors are called “limit load factors.” For reasons of safety, it is required that the aircraft be designed to withstand these load factors without any structural damage. Although the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) requires the aircraft structure be capable of supporting one and one-half times these limit load factors without failure, it is accepted that parts of the aircraft may bend or twist under these loads and that some structural damage may occur.


This 1.5 load limit factor is called the “factor of safety” and provides, to some extent, for loads higher than those expected under normal and reasonable operation. This strength reserve is not something that pilots should willfully abuse; rather, it is there for protection when encountering unexpected conditions.

The above considerations apply to all loading conditions, whether they be due to gusts, maneuvers, or landings. The gust load factor requirements now in effect are substantially the same as those that have been in existence for years. Hundreds of thousands of operational hours have proven them adequate for safety. Since the pilot has little control over gust load factors (except to reduce the aircraft’s speed when rough air is encountered), the gust loading requirements are substantially the same for most general aviation type aircraft regardless of their operational use. Generally, the gust load factors control the design of aircraft which are intended for strictly nonacrobatic usage.

An entirely different situation exists in aircraft design with maneuvering load factors. It is necessary to discuss this matter separately with respect to: (1) aircraft designed in accordance with the category system (i.e., normal, utility, acrobatic); and (2) older designs built according to requirements that did not provide for operational categories.

Aircraft designed under the category system are readily identified by a placard in the flight deck, which states the operational category (or categories) in which the aircraft is certificated. The maximum safe load factors (limit load factors) specified for aircraft in the various categories are:

Normal1 3.8 to –1.52
Utility (mild acrobatics, including spins) 4.4 to –1.76
Acrobatic 6.0 to –3.00

1 For aircraft with gross weight of more than 4,000 pounds, the limit load factor is reduced. To the limit loads given above, a safety factor of 50 percent is added.

There is an upward graduation in load factor with the increasing severity of maneuvers. The category system provides for maximum utility of an aircraft. If normal operation alone is intended, the required load factor (and consequently the weight of the aircraft) is less than if the aircraft is to be employed in training or acrobatic maneuvers as they result in higher maneuvering loads.

Aircraft that do not have the category placard are designs that were constructed under earlier engineering requirements in which no operational restrictions were specifically given to the pilots. For aircraft of this type (up to weights of about 4,000 pounds), the required strength is comparable to presentday utility category aircraft, and the same types of operation are permissible. For aircraft of this type over 4,000 pounds, the load factors decrease with weight. These aircraft should be regarded as being comparable to the normal category aircraft designed under the category system, and they should be operated accordingly.

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