8 min read

It was my leg as a cargo 747-100 first officer, a creampuff Sunday flight from southeast US to Anchorage, Alaska. Dauntingly clear skies and smooth air bridged the gap separating us three from cold drafts and beer battered halibut at the Fancy Moose. Spirits were high, the first leg of a ten day trip that we had flown many times.

The Greek, our second officer on the panel, had a list of counterfeit software to buy in Hong Kong. I had a gold bracelet to pick up. Rob, the easygoing captain with a thick Oklahoma accent, stood six foot three and looked like Wild Bill Hickok. He held court on a shooting game in a Hong Kong video arcade. He played free for hours on bonus points, with excited Chinese stacking six deep, crowded to watch him. Tall with white Hickok-like hair and that too-small red jacket, like a flag pole, he pulled awestruck spectators from the open entrance to the sidewalk.

Before departure, it was all good and no bad. We joked with the ladies in dispatch, the van driver and even the usually grumpy mechanics. Stress free weekend flying—what a difference from hyperactive, choreographed 50-plane scrambles at 3:00 am during the week. Hydraulic lifts loaded upper and lower decks with palleted cargo.

The Greek, although a fairly new flight engineer, was conscientious and reliable. I had three years in the 74 right seat and Rob was north of a dozen.

None of us were ready for what happened next.

Kuhlman in cockpit

Running the numbers isn’t always enough in a 747.

Four engines running, we blocked out for the long, slow taxi. Captains taxi the plane—the tiller turning the nose wheel is near their left hand. Rob turned onto the runway and lined up. “Your airplane,” he said to me.

“My airplane.”

I held the brakes. “Cleared for takeoff.” I released the brakes and pushed the four thrust levers up an inch and said, “set takeoff thrust.” Rob pushed them up to takeoff power and The Greek fine tuned each one. Rob’s hand hovered lightly on the thrust levers (captains decide to abort takeoffs). Slowly, the jumbo jet’s 18 wheels gained momentum. Rob called out “80 knots” and I said, “check.”

The next speed is V1, or decision speed—the last chance to abort a takeoff and stop in the remaining runway. “V1,” Rob called out and took his hand off the thrust levers. Three knots later, he called, “Rotate.”

And things had gone so well to that point.

Amazingly well.

Accelerating a 600,000 pound 747 to 165 mph and lifting off is counterintuitive. It doesn’t seem possible considering the weight, torsions, valves, relays, sensors, and thousands of moving parts. So many things to go wrong.

To rotate, the control yoke is pulled back smoothly. This moves cables extending 200 ft. from the flight deck to the tail. Cables move hydraulic valves, porting high pressure oil to push the elevators up, which force the tail down.

Before taxi, we calculated a trim setting for the moveable horizontal stabilizer, where the elevators attach. The setting, called “units of trim,” varies by aircraft weight and center of gravity. It gives the yoke a neutral feel on takeoff.

I smoothly pulled the yoke back to feel the nose weighing against it—like removing slack in a fishing line. Yep, the line tightened and I felt the weight.

Normally, the nose strut should extend, followed by the nose gear breaking ground. The nose should rise, as checked on the attitude indicator. The cockpit sits 25 ft. off the ground and wings are not visible from the cockpit. Therefore, rotation is by feel and checking the attitude indicator. Too rapid a rotation and the tail hits the ground. Too slow and the gear can hit lights off the end.

So what was going on here?

The line was tight but it felt like a snag. The nose wasn’t coming up.

Of course, this was happening very fast. Too fast to say more than, “Nose is heavy.” Way past the point of stopping.

I pull back on the yoke more. It was quite heavy, but it did move. Not jammed.

So why was the nose not rising and the plane was still on the ground?

I pulled back more, past where the yoke should be. Still little movement. At this rate we would run off the end at 200 mph.

I pulled back even more and the yoke was getting close to the stop, almost touching my stomach.


Getting a 747 in the air shouldn’t be this hard…

The nose came up a little.

We’re not going to make it.

What could I do?

I have no idea how I decided. It was not a standard procedure or a non-standard procedure and not practiced in training.

I held down the nose-up trim switches on the yoke. They moved the horizontal stabilizer towards nose up. That forced the tail down and created more wing lift.

The nose finally came up. The main gear broke ground in the final portion of the runway.

Rob remained professionally silent throughout. He called out, “positive rate,” and I replied, “gear up.”

Slowly we climbed and retracted flaps.

So what happened next? Well, that’s a good question.

I told my story to Rob and The Greek, which ended with, “this airplane is f’d up.” They didn’t even know about the boot-full of trim I added to get airborne.

The first obvious question was, did we screw up the trim setting? We checked the paperwork on climb out. Trim number was good.

As old airline pilots know, the 90s was a transition period from a three person cockpit to two. Also new to us was the concept of Cockpit Resource Management (CRM). Simply, adopting CRM was like changing the cockpit from a dictatorship to a democracy, with the president having veto power. Captains build their team and keep communications open, but make the final calls.

“So, if the trim calculation was correct, maybe we set it wrong? Or, I was lazy on the rotation,” they suggested. “Nope,” I said. It was like pulling a sofa with a rope.

The plane’s systems seemed normal and we climbed northwest, asking for direct to Winnipeg.

Next yellow flag: the plane required more thrust to hold speed at cruise altitude. “Could be another screw up by flight planning,” someone postulated.

The flight finally settled down to normal bitching about management, the crew meal orders being screwed up, and still no Diet Cokes.

These were the days before satellite phones and flight data links to dispatch. Mother mostly knew we left for Grandma’s house and would call when we got there.

We kept a log of time and fuel at each waypoint compared to the flight plan.

Next yellow flag: fuel burn was above plan.

So, how important was a three person cockpit in this situation? Well, that depended on who was in the seats. Certainly The Greek and I weighed in on the conundrums during the seven hour flight. But, our experience compared to the captain’s was fractional. Rob had been flying these tired old birds a long time.

On one hand, we had the “go with the flow” option. Get to the Fancy Moose with no paperwork or problems with gateway management.

On the other hand, we added 2+2 and got a 3. The “make waves” option.

It could have gone either way.

We landed with no problems.

Loading cargo

How much does all that cargo really weigh?

We went to the Fancy Moose, drank Alaskan Amber and ate halibut chunks, while watching float planes flying on Lake Spenard. Lived to fly another day.

But in-range of Anchorage, we sent a message to the gateway about the suspected cargo load error. We requested all cargo be unloaded and re-weighed. Not a small thing on a 747.

This, of course, was on a weekend with minimal gateway staffing and a plane scheduled to fly west the next day without unloading. A risky write-up for any captain in those days.

Later, I submitted a flight safety report. The investigation results were jaw dropping. Even hardened freight pilots shuddered to think about what could have happened.

It started with a simple hex bolt. A bolt that somehow slipped through the gap between the frame and table of a cargo pallet scale. A scale that was red tagged during the week for bad readings. A scale our weekend loaders accidentally used without calibrating.

Our pallets were weighed. The heavy pallets depressed the table until it hit the bolt, reporting weights thousands of pounds too light. Some of the heavy pallets were loaded in forward deck positions with low weight limits.

The aircraft was 58,000 pounds heavier than planned. The center of gravity well forward of plan.

Our crew settled on the right decision. Call it democracy, CRM, or personalities.

The list of “what if’s,” is too long for this story. Its fair to assume that the next crew with that load, would have struggled to get airborne.

Our crew actions were not perfect. I could have called for max trust, which might have helped.

Yet, we could have rationalized away the head scratchers, and didn’t.

Certainly, I knew captains that were hesitant to write up even minor items for fear of highlighting themselves to management. One almost killed us coming out of Seoul.

What I can say about our captain is, he was definitely not in the timid category. What he was, unlike many, was a captain that listened and was open to persuasion. The essence of what would later be called Cockpit Resource Management.

I think the company understood how close they came to losing a 747. Although the incident was kept quiet, there were material changes in cargo loading procedures. It improved greatly over the years.

Henry Kuhlman
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21 replies
  1. Mark J Ebben
    Mark J Ebben says:

    Had something similar in a C141A in ANC. Luck was with them that day, were offered an intersection departure and the numbers checked OK. But they said no thanks, we’ll take the whole length. Sothe throttle up went ok, roll past V1, then at Vr – pulled back on the yoke. Nothings happening. Runway being used up, finally in the air. At the destination AB, All pallets got re weighed . Bad scale.

  2. Henry+Kuhlman
    Henry+Kuhlman says:

    Thanks, Mark. Full length is the only way to go in heavy’s. I’ll bet there are many out there with our story. Incidentally, I think it was Buenos Aires that occasionally weighed the loaded airplane during taxi out (I think to collect their fees). At Bogota, they cargo loaded cargo to the last pound even accounting for takeoff wind component. A bad scale there would be no bueno.

    JOHN SWALLOW says:

    One of the things I liked about the helicopters I flew is that you found out if the weight and the CofG were within limits before leaving the ground.

    If, while trying to ease the machine into the air, the cyclic fetched up against the instrument panel, the seat front, or a leg and the engine instrument needles were observed buried in the yellow or even flirting with the red, it might be prudent to down collective and review the loading…


    • Henry+Kuhlman
      Henry+Kuhlman says:

      Good point John. Unfortunately, a lot of other small things can kill you in helicopters. I was in an OV-10 squadron down the ramp from our neighbor, a CH-53 squadron at Sembach AB, Germany in 1977. On liftoff in front of base ops at about ten feet, something let go and dropped the helo, tilted over, onto the huge external fuel tank. It exploded and all died. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Barry T Borella
    Barry T Borella says:

    That’s why I never liked flying cargo. Too many chances of a weight and balance problem, often beyond your control. I had something similar happen flying cargo on a Summit Airlines CV580, out of Indianapolis. That time the CG was out the aft side of the envelope.

    • Henry+Kuhlman
      Henry+Kuhlman says:

      Yes, and don’t forget about cargo not being secured correctly, shifting around, falling off pallets, or pallets sliding to the tail on takeoff. Many have died that never saw it coming.

    • Robert Stetser
      Robert Stetser says:

      Hey, I see you were a Summit freight dog. Ditto here, though I’ve lost contact with anyone from those days. Lots of good stories and memories from back then.

      • Henry+Kuhlman
        Henry+Kuhlman says:

        Actually, the pictures were added by someone to story as being representative of my freight dog company. But I flew with a lot of great guys from the old school freight dog companies. I just got an email from one, a friend who is one of the best pilots I know. Thanks,

  5. Stephen Phoenix
    Stephen Phoenix says:

    A good bit of fast thinking running the trim nose up during the roll. I think many would just hold the column back to the end.

    • Henry+Kuhlman
      Henry+Kuhlman says:

      Thanks. It was a no no, changing the trim on takeoff roll. Maybe that was why I remembered it. Instructors saying not do it, made me aware of the option.

  6. Andrew Niemyer
    Andrew Niemyer says:

    I encountered the same thing on my first-ever Navy KA-3B TransPac out of NAS Alameda. We finally got airborne with very, very little room to spare before the runway ran out and SF Bay began. When we got to Hickam/Honolulu, with a lot less spare fuel than we’d planned for, we discovered Maintenance had thrown in some “extra” spare parts for the trip that put us way over Max Gross Weight, after the aircraft had been loaded by the previous watch. We split everything up with the other two planes on the trip but hawked everything very carefully for the rest of the trip.

    • Henry+Kuhlman
      Henry+Kuhlman says:

      Wow, that was a close one. We had loading crews in the early days, throw late arriving cargo into the lower aft belly compartment. Stuff not on the Weight and Balance form. Kids and young supervisors that had no clue what CG was.

  7. Alan Murgatroyd
    Alan Murgatroyd says:

    Freighter 707, mid-60’s and on departure JFK we often loaded extra fuel over max TOW to allow for the long taxi times, and annotated the load sheet as extra fuel to be burned off before take-off.

    On one occasion the load sheet showed weight slightly in excess of “max weight at start of taxy” i.e. absolute max. airframe weight. The Captain ordered the crew bags to be offloaded, which brought the weight below that max. We objected, and he said “trust me”. After start up we pushed back and the Capt. taxied forward a few feet and then stopped, flashing the landing lights to attract the ground crew, who came back on the intercom and asked what the problem was ?

    No problem, he said, re-load the crew bags. Continuing to taxy he said ” The flight manual states the max. weight at start of taxi, it doesn’t say that weight can’t increase during the taxi, four crew bags aren’t going to cause an issue, and we will burn off a lot of fuel before we get anywhere near take off. No problem, checklist pls.”

    He also held a Law Degree.

  8. John Dale
    John Dale says:

    Back during the Vietnam war I had a C-130 loaded with 33,000 lb. of beer bound for Saigon. I was grossed out but that was normal in the Herc. in those days. At rotation speed I pulled back on the yolk and the nose didn’t raise. Passing take off speed it still hadn’t raised but I could tell the elevators were trying to do their part. With a lot of extra airspeed the nose came up and when trimmed for climb I had 12 extra degrees nose up. I gave the controls to the co-pilot and went back to talk to the loadmaster and check what was making the bird so very nose heavy. Well….some cases had 16 oz. bottles and others 12 Oz. cans. We spent most of the flight moving beer until the trim was zero! Spent a lot of time on the ground drinking some of it!

    • Henry+Kuhlman
      Henry+Kuhlman says:

      OMG John. I knew there would be lots of stories like mine. I flew on one of those C-130’s from Saigon to Korat. Here’s a connected story —- Before the C-130 flight, I was at Clark going through jungle survival school. I ran into, by pure chance at the O-club, a pilot training buddy. He was flying the two engine C-7 Caribou. “Why don’t you fly with us to Saigon, instead of the C-130?” “Sure,” I said. Well, about a hour out of Clark, one engine quits! We limped back to Clark wondering if there was too much fuel in the extra bladder on the cargo deck. It got my attention.

  9. Henry+Kuhlman
    Henry+Kuhlman says:

    That’s a great story Alan. I can totally see that happening, especially at JFK. I had a favored gateway in a foreign country, always giving us treats and such. Our Home Office management was adamant about blocking out on time. The gateway got nailed for being late. The vehicle traffic around the airport was crazy in the late afternoon (when trucks were bringing cargo to be loaded). My idea. I had the gateway manager to bring up the planned load sheet for my review while they waited on the final paperwork to be processed. At two minutes before our scheduled block out time, I closed the main door and released brakes. The tug pulled us out a few feet and stopped. This sent the block out time to the head-shed on ACARS. Several minutes later, I opened the cockpit window while they passed up the real paperwork on a pole. I signed it and off we went. No one to blame for delays in route.

  10. Rex Myers
    Rex Myers says:

    Yup. It happens more than any cargo management type will admit. One of our B727 Captains was just setting take off thrust when requested (from company) to return to the gate. It seems they had a DC8 load on board (and the eight had their load). The cargo was TWICE as heavy as the paper work showed.

    • Henry+Kuhlman
      Henry+Kuhlman says:

      Wow, that’s crazy Rex, never heard one that bad. The flight crew really was the last line defense. I would not want to know the percentage of part time workers or the turnover rate for loaders. Especially when they are loading five+ types of planes under very tight time schedules. Add in airplanes that break after loaded and that cargo being moved to other planes. The potential for screwup is enormous. Things got better over time with new procedures added as errors showed weak links. Computer generated load plans specific to each aircraft by tail number helped. But still, we had inexperience and plain give-a-S attitudes that allowed the occasional thin plastic walled containers to have totally unsecured contents like a single 757 main gear brake assembly (about 500#s) sliding around. I watched the loading when possible and checked can numbers to see if they were in the correct station. What helped a lot was safety reports crew filed when they saw problems. I filed all the time. Thanks for the story.

  11. Steve Brower
    Steve Brower says:

    SAME thing happened about 1997 when I was an FE at Atlas. 747-200 JFK to Torino Italy. Airplane would not fly at rotate. Would not climb right. Way too slow. I thought pilots were messing up. Ran charts backwards and knew we were over weight. On landing at Torino the LM met us and first thing he said was you guys are over weight. How do you know I asked. Said he’d been on 747s for 20 years. They weighed all the pallets after they came off. We were 30,000 lbs over weight. People loading in NY only saw our plane as a big warehouse. NO concept of weight affecting an airplane. Lucky to live through it.

    • Scott
      Scott says:

      Have a similar story. I was a LM on the MD-11. Went out to do my usual pallet inspection before the ac arrives. A good LM can roughly tell the weight of a pallet by looking at it. Had my suspicions of the AL/AR pallets and a few others. I had the warehouse re-weight all the pallets found a total of +20000KG weight difference.
      Warehouse employee was using a standard dolly tare weight on the scale instead of what is marked on the dolly.

  12. Paul Zahner
    Paul Zahner says:

    I remember those days, when I was still wet behind the ears, with many an adventure and new experiences. Flew the -100 and -200 freighters around the world, both directions, for close to ten years sitting sideways for most of it and had a blast. Including a few similar situations that required someone who actually knew how to fly the plane rather than operate it. I also marvel that we used to have paper W&B forms for an aircraft that could weight 820,000 lbs and have over thirty different loading locations on the main deck, not to mention the belly’s. There were occasional errors. Not all of them minor.
    Something that might get lost on your General Aviation readers though is that the 747 trim is not like the trim tab on your common everyday light aircraft. Not only does the 747 trim move the whole stabilator, which is essentially the whole horizontal stabilizer and elevator, but the sheer size of the stabilator is immense. I’m not sure what the square footage of it is but I’d venture to say it rivals the area of a early 737 wing. It like everything else about the 747 is huge.


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