Flying loaded: what could possibly go wrong?

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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.

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].

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