Weight is a major factor in airplane construction and operation, and it demands respect from all pilots and particular diligence by all maintenance personnel. Excessive weight reduces the efficiency of an aircraft and the available safety margin if an emergency condition should arise.
When an aircraft is designed, it is made as light as the required structural strength allows, and the wings or rotors are designed to support the maximum allowable weight. When the weight of an aircraft is increased, the wings or rotors must produce additional lift and the structure must support not only the additional static loads, but also the dynamic loads imposed by flight maneuvers. For example, the wings of a 3,000-pound airplane must support 3,000 pounds in level flight,but when the airplane is turned smoothly and sharply using a bank angle of 60°, the dynamic load requires the wings to support twice this or 6,000 pounds.
Severe uncoordinated maneuvers or flight into turbulence can impose dynamic loads on the structure great enough to cause failure. In accordance with Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 23, the structure of a normal category airplane must be strong enough to sustain a load factor of 3.8 times its weight. Every pound of weight added to a normal category aircraft requires that the structure be strong enough to support 3.8 pounds. An aircraft operated in the utility category must sustain a load factor of 4.4 times its weight, and acrobatic category aircraft must be strong enough to withstand 6.0 times their weight.
The lift produced by a wing is determined by its airfoil shape, angle of attack, speed through the air, and air density. When an aircraft takes off from an airport with a high density altitude, it must accelerate to a speed faster than would be required at sea level to produce enough lift to allow takeoff; therefore, a longer takeoff run is necessary. The distance needed may be longer than the available runway. When operating from a high density altitude airport, the Pilot’s Operating Handbook (POH) or Airplane Flight Manual (AFM) must be consulted to determine the maximum weight allowed for the aircraft under the conditions of altitude, temperature, wind, and runway conditions.
Effects of Weight
Most modern aircraft are so designed that, when all seats are occupied, the baggage compartment is full, and all fuel tanks are full, the aircraft is grossly overloaded. This type of design requires the pilot to give great consideration to the requirements of each specific flight. If maximum range is required, occupants or baggage must be left behind, or if the maximum load must be carried, the range, dictated by the amount of fuel on board, must be reduced.
Overloading an aircraft can create a variety of problems:
- The aircraft needs a higher takeoff speed, which results in a longer takeoff run.
- Both the rate and angle of climb are reduced.
- The service ceiling is lowered.
- The cruising speed is reduced.
- The cruising range is shortened.
- Maneuverability is decreased.
- A longer landing roll is required because the landing speed is higher.
- Excessive loads are imposed on the structure, especially the landing gear.
The POH or AFM includes tables or charts that give the pilot an indication of the performance expected for any weight. An important part of careful preflight planning includes a check of these charts to determine if the aircraft is loaded so the proposed flight can be safely made.
The maximum allowable weight for an aircraft is determined by design considerations. However, the maximum operational weight may be less than the maximum allowable weight due to such considerations as high density altitude or high-drag fieldconditions caused by wet grass or water on the runway. The maximum operational weight may also be limited by the departure or arrival airport’s runway length.
One important preflight consideration is the distribution of the load in the aircraft. Loading the aircraft so the gross weight is less than the maximum allowable is not enough. This weight must be distributed to keep the CG within the limits specified in the POH or AFM.
If the CG is too far forward, a heavy passenger can be moved to one of the rear seats or baggage may be shifted from a forward baggage compartment to a rear compartment. If the CG is too far aft, passenger weight or baggage can be shifted forward. The fuel load should be balanced laterally. The pilot should pay special attention to the POH or AFM regarding the operation of the fuel system in order to keep the aircraft balanced in flight.
Weight and balance of a helicopter is far more critical than for an airplane. Some helicopters may be properly loaded for takeoff, but near the end of a long flight when the fuel tanks are almost empty, the CG may have shifted enough for the helicopter to be out of balance laterally or longitudinally. Before making any long flight,the CG with the fuel available for landing must be checked to ensure it is within the allowable range.
Airplanes with tandem seating normally have a limitation requiring solo flight to be made from the front seat in some airplanes or the rear seat in others. Some of the smaller helicopters also require solo flight be made from a specific seat, either the right, left, or center. These seating limitations are noted by a placard, usually on the instrument panel, and they should be strictly followed.
As an aircraft ages, its weight usually increases due to debris and dirt collecting in hard-to-reach locations and moisture absorbed in the cabin insulation. This increase in weight is normally small, but it can be determined only by accurately weighing the aircraft.
Changes of fixed equipment may have a major effect upon the weight of the aircraft. Many aircraft are overloaded by the installation of extra radios or instruments. Fortunately, the replacement of older, heavy electronic equipment with newer, lighter types results in a weight reduction. This weight change, however helpful, can cause the CG to shift, which must be computed and annotated in the weight and balance record.
Repairs and alterations are the major sources of weight changes. It is the responsibility of the FAA-certificate mechanic or repairman making any repair or alteration to know the weight and location of a change, to compute the CG, record the new empty weight and EWCG in the aircraft weight and balance record, and update the equipment lists.
If the newly calculated EWCG should happen to fall outside the EWCG range, it is necessary to perform an adverse-loading check. This requires a forward and rearward adverse-loading check and a maximum weight check. These weight and balance extreme conditions represent the maximum forward and rearward CG position for the aircraft. An adverse-loading check is a deliberate attempt to load an aircraft in a manner that creates the most critical balance condition and still remains within the design CG limits of the aircraft. If any of the checks fall outside the loaded CG range, the aircraft must be reconfigured or placarded to prevent the pilot from loading the aircraft improperly. It is sometimes possible to install a fixed ballast in order for the aircraft to operate again within the normal CG range.
The FAA-certificated mechanic or repairman conducting an annual or condition inspection must ensure the weight and balance data in the aircraft records is current and accurate. It is the responsibility of the PIC to use the most current weight and balance data when operating the aircraft.