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I was a brand-new Private Pilot, my head was in the sky, eager to build my flying skills, and a perfect opportunity arose. The Barbershop Singing Lancaster, Pennsylvania, chapter needed some help transporting gear to Ocean City, Maryland, and my buddy Bob (always the organizer) we could fly the stuff from Lancaster to an airport closer to the destination.

The proposed load was professional PA equipment: big loudspeakers, mics, amplifiers, stands, cables, etc. Being a former engineering major, I was hesitant about the weight involved, and requested a complete list of every single item, showing all dimensions and weight of each one.

Having no aircraft of my own, my plan was to rent a Cessna 172 and take out the back seat. I would then carefully calculate where every item would have to fit, and the location of the center of mass of each item. The list of items arrived and I drew a layout where the huge loudspeakers and each of the other items had to go. Then I ran the weight and balance calculations, three independent times, to be sure it was right. It came out that with me and Bob in the front seats (both heavyweights back then; no offense, Bob), we would be at full maximum weight and just within the rear CG limit.

I know you must be curious: had I ever flown that make and model of plane before? Well… err… no. Had I ever flown any plane at maximum weight and maximum aft center of gravity? Err… no again. Wait—maybe in the trainer? It was a tiny Tomahawk two-seater, barely enough room for me and my 6 foot 3 inch instructor, and we always had around 10 gallons fuel (I always wondered about that).

But the math said we were OK, and as a former engineer I was very sure of my math. The deal was on, to fly the stuff from Lancaster to the Cambridge, Maryland, airport where others would pick up items and drive the rest of the way.

When the day came, our initial trip to Lancaster in the rental plane was a piece of cake. We were real light and real fast (no back seat), the weather was grand, and I was happy to be adding a new airport to my logbook.

W&B form

Weight and balance is important, but only if you follow the plan when you load the airplane.

We met the Lancaster guy with all the stuff, and as he handed each piece to me I carefully identified and loaded each item into the plane in exactly the place I had planned. Everything fit perfectly, and I walked away to sign the bill for fuel top-off (the second not so smart idea?), made a final weather check, and soon we were cleared for takeoff.

I knew we were very heavy and would need much more runway than usual to take off, but was really surprised when the nose lifted off before we were even at 40 knots. I pushed the yoke forward and quickly dialed in nose down trim, but it happened again almost immediately—and more down trim went in. We were gaining speed slowly, but it needed a lot more nose down trim, and finally at around 110 knots airspeed we lifted off the runway, at the exact moment I ran out of forward trim. I told my friend Bob to lean forward as far as he could, but “don’t touch the yoke or the pedals”. We were in a very, very slow climb, long out of runway, and I had to keep pushing hard on the yoke to keep the nose down and the airspeed up.

By now I knew something was critically wrong. Foolishly, I pushed on to Cambridge—perhaps because I was very familiar with the airspace, there was ordinarily almost no traffic, and that was where the plane lived.

Approaching Cambridge, I called on the radio to ask for help from an instructor or anyone, but no one answered. I brought her on down, but as we crossed the approach end of the runway I realized we were much too high and way too fast to ever get down and stopped before going off into the marsh. I aborted the landing, and now I had to somehow climb again, very slowly and carefully, just to clear the terrain and not smack into grass, trees, sailboat masts, etc.

At full power we were inching up, just missing the big stuff, and it seemed like it took 20 minutes coming back around in a very large very low circle, with arms now weakening. This time, at full speed, I planted the wheels right onto the runway at the numbers, cut the throttle, and braked like hell. When we finally got stopped, we had 30 feet left of the 3000 foot runway.

After shutdown ,I was out pulling shredded tall grass out of the wheel pants when the owner came out of his repair shop, apologized for not answering the call, and asked what the problem was. He half listened, and then replied, “no problem—just do a normal landing.”

That would have been sure disaster. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have followed that advice anyway, based on my understanding of the problem, the feel of the controls, and the plane’s behavior.

But the math was right—wasn’t it??

Investigating together, Bob and I discovered that after I left to pay the bill, the guy had either miscounted or just threw in an extra professional mic stand, the kind with a gigantic, heavy, round foot. When I was busy signing the fuel ticket he slipped the heavy base into the only place left, the worst possible—the hat rack!

Recalculating, I found we were more than 6 inches beyond the aft limit and around 40 pounds over gross. I believe that if my friend Bob and I were not as heavy as we were at that time, then once aloft the legendary farm would have been ours.

Thank you, Great Spirit! Thank you too, ever so Great Bob (again, no offense)!

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

RC Thompson
12 replies
  1. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    When I was flying the OV-10 Bronco in SEA, I showed up one day to fly one from NKP (KOP) Thailand to DaNang AB in Vietnam. I was going there on temporary duty to fly the FAC mission in-country (I normally flew in Laos). As I did my walk-around, the crew chief happened to mention I had a few extra items in the back. As always, I opened the cargo door and looked into the cargo bay where up to 5 paratroopers or two litter patients could be transported (although I never carried either). Instead, what I found was a spare engine and several spare tire/wheel assemblies strapped down plus a large bag of mail/packages I was to deliver to our troops already at DaNang. I never gave it a second thought, but reading your story made me consider how I was lucky the OV-10 was such a great little airplane. That and the story of how our squadron came to have not one, but two full-size slate-top pool tables assuaged any trepidation I may have had. A US Army base was closing down in Vietnam and they asked our unit to fly their two pool tables (one from their Officer’s Club and the other from their Enlisted Club) to the base to which they were relocating. With the table legs removed, they fit nicely in the back of two OV-10’s and they were promptly flown off-base. However, they never made it to their new destination. BUT, our unit’s officer’s bar and the bar for our our enlisted troops at NKP had suddenly become owners of a pool table.

    • RC Thompson
      RC Thompson says:

      Thanks for your comments!

      I’ve always wondered if you kept W & B within the stated limits in the POH, exactly how much over the POH handbook gross limit you could carry in say a Cessna 172 and still take off at sea level with SOME rate of climb greater than zero????

      • Karl Hunkeler
        Karl Hunkeler says:

        the law is clear: no overweight allowed! Unless you get a special approval from the authorities. Then you have to show them with calculations that you are well aware of all the consequences like higher takeoff speeds with the consequential longer takeoff distance, higher stall speed, higher landing speed, lower climb rate etc. That are the procedures for all ferry flights of new aircraft across the atlantic, these aircraft are mostly consierably over the book-weights, but always still within the cg limits!
        compare these procedures e.g. with the Piper Warriors which are delivered with two versions:
        the standard version with MTOM of 2400 lbs and the European version with the reduced MTOM of 2200 lbs. The European Version has separate performance tables and charts in the section 9 due to other performance (Max RPM for standard version is 2700, for the european version it is 2600 RPM due to noise limitations).

  2. wade m russell
    wade m russell says:

    Great article RC ! To the point: You realized that you had a problem quickly, and did not do anything to compound the issue. We have all wished for a “do over”, but betting that you NEVER had that particular issue again ?!?! Sinc., Wade ps: Also- great post by Dale: Had friend, now gone, that had tons hours in both Bronce & Mohawk, and his stories were unbelievable! Powerful airframes!

    • Karl Hunkeler
      Karl Hunkeler says:

      We should always calculate a point where we would like to be airborne. If we are not airborne at that point, abort the takeoff and consider the situation. perhaps you have miscalcutated something, or there was another undiscoverd flaw in the preparation or execution of the takeoff. After the abort you will have ample time to reevaluate the situation and get it corrected! Without abort perhaps you will never have the chance again to rethink the procedure, it will be done by a accident investigation board.

  3. Bob B
    Bob B says:

    W&B, my best was I was flying freight out of MIami late one night in a C-46. On walking out we noticed the tail wheel tire appeared low. We called a mechanic to put some air in it. He came in the cockpit and informed us it was actually over inflated.
    Didn’t take long we discovered we had been loaded in kilos instead of pounds.
    48000 kilos instead of 48000 lbs.
    48000 k X 2.2=105,600 lbs
    We would never even been able to taxi but it shows how loading mistakes can happen.

  4. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    Years ago, I was trying to date a lady that we will say wasn’t exactly petite. I normally fly in and out of paved runways. However, on this fateful day, I was taking her to a luncheon to a private grass strip event. In a well worn out close to TBO Piper Warrior. 160 HP if that. After said event, I made a number of errors. I wasn’t thinking of flying so much as what my next move would have been with her.) This was a hot day, full fuel, old worn out aircraft, a not so slim lady, and a short grass strip to depart from. Here’s my missteps. Didn’t use up the whole runway. Didn’t drop in any flaps. Didn’t do a short / soft field procedure. I just shoved in the throttle like I usually do. I was at the 1/2 way mark on the runway, at my take off speed, and the bird was fully planted on the ground. At the 3/4 mark, I was 10 knots over take off speed, and it STILL wouldn’t come off the ground. Finally, I hit a dip in the runway at close to the end of the runway, and as I came up out of the dip, I got airborne. I don’t think I cleared that cornfield by 10 feet. I never told that lady what almost just happened. So things are best left unsaid.)

  5. Schrep99
    Schrep99 says:

    This story seems embellished or made up completely. The author has no knowledge of a Cessna 172. A 172 will fly just fine 40 pounds over weight and not need 110 kits to fly! They will barely do 110 kts in level flight! How could you do that on take off. It you required that airspeed you would stall as soon as you left ground effect. Also, using up almost 3000 ft of runway after touching down at the numbers? No way! I am a private pilot and A&P who repairs and flies A LOT of 172s and every flight instructor I work with laughed at this story and agreed with my assessment.

    • Karl Hunkeler
      Karl Hunkeler says:

      I completely agree with your reply concerning weight. That is normally not a problem. We have an aircraft in our school which got a false meysurement of BEW at delivery, it was 70 kg heavier than indicated in the load sheet. Only ten years later, during the scheduled re-weighting the error was discovered. So we flew with 70 kg overweight during 10 years, and nobody remarked a problem. But the real problem is with the cg which was 6 inches out of limit. I know the case of a very experiences airline pilot hwo tried to fly from Basel to Oshkosh with his hombuilt experimental aircraft. The aircraft was more than 1000 lbs overweight, but got an exemption from the authorities due to an extra long runway for takeoff (4000 meters long). The aircraft barely got airborne after 3000 meters due to the fact that the cg was more than 10 cm behind the limit dut to a false measurement, and the aircraft only got airborne at more than 100 knots! So the problem was not with weight (check also with Lindberg crossing the atlantic), but with the instability due to wrong cg position! The problem with overweight is mainly that you need a higher speed to generate the necessary lift (also consider increased stall speed); but the problem with wrong cg is, that you will never get enough lift within the cg-envelope!

  6. Karl Hunkeler
    Karl Hunkeler says:

    you were lucky with that aft cg to still be able to takeoff! But even worse could have happened: on most aircraft, when the cg is already at the aftmost limit for takeoff, the cg has the tendency to move even farther aft! Several airdraft are known to have gotten out of control during flight because the cg moved aft with the consumption of fuel. So never forget to calculate also the cg for landing, with little or even zero fuel! That could be a big surprise! This behaviour is especially critical for 6-seaters like Beech Bonanza or Piper Saratoga.


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