A Lesson In Weight & Balance…The Hard Way

John HurlbutFlying2 Comments

I had a nice long flight lesson scheduled today.  Truth be told, all I wanted to do today was fly the pattern.  The plan was to take off from KPLU, head over to KTIW, go a bit West of the airport and practice a couple of maneuvers then do touch and go’s at Tacoma Narrows.  I was going to get more practice on the radios talking to the tower, I was going to get to practice forward slips and simulated engine out procedures, the day was going to be great! One step closer to solo! Or so I thought.

When I got up this morning, KPLU was reporting VFR conditions, but KTIW was reporting Marginal VFR with a pretty low ceiling.  I got to the airport a bit early to work on my presolo written exam, and walked in right at 9.  I told Meg about the weather, and she sent me out to preflight the airplane anyway, if nothing else we’d just stay at Thun and do our pattern work there.  After preflight, we decided to give the weather just a bit more time to clear up at Tacoma Narrows, so we went through the first half of my presolo written exam.  I think I did pretty well and was able to cite sections of the FAR/AIM that I had found my answers.

Finally, we could wait no more and we headed out to the plane.  We were just doing our engine pre start check list when another plane taxied by and Meg remarked “They look really heavy”.  This is another big clue to find an instructor that has a teachers heart, and aviation coursing through their veins.  When I looked at the plane, the tail maybe seemed a bit low, but only just. (I’m going to check my Garmin VIRB Because it’s possible I caught it taxing past us). I commented “It looks like they have at least 3 people in there”.  It was a Cessna 172 like ours, and while it has four seats, it’s rare anyone goes up with four people in it from what I’ve been able to ascertain.  That being said, we continued on with our checklist and were just about to start the engine when the other plane went by on the runway for takeoff.  We both watched as the plane lifted off, and settled back down on the runway (NEVER a good thing).  I think we both said naughty words, and soon enough our seat belts and shoulder harnesses were off and we were out of the plane. 

The other Cessna did start to gain altitude, but even to my untrained eyes, it was far slower than it should have been.  I think Meg and I both heard the engine cut out, and come back on as it was lifting off.  I can’t be sure.  The plane headed north and began a steep banking turn to the left at what I would have thought was an impossibly low speed.  They must have banked to nearly 45 degrees, which at 3,000 feet is an absolute blast, at 300-400 feet above the runway it’s got to be terrifying.  Well from the ground it was terrifying to watch.  Meg told me to be ready to dial 9-1-1.  I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  If you’ve ever seen video on YouTube of a plane crash where the plane was over loaded, and stalled on takeoff, that’s EXACTLY what this looked like.  I can’t even imagine what the pilot and his three passengers were thinking. 

Miraculously, he pulled out of the turn, came back across the hangars on the north end of the runway and touched down almost perfectly.  Now if you’re an aviator and can picture what I’m telling you, he took off runway 34 and landed on runway 16.  It’s a good thing it was a slow day at the airport and no one was right behind him taking off, or this would have ended much more badly than it did.  As I was standing there watching this unfold, I made a mental note that I was looking north and had the wind at my back.  It’s possible that the winds shifted between the time he took off and my note of wind direction, but if they were blowing that way when he took off, he chose the wrong runway and should have taken off on 16.  No matter, the winds were favorable for his return trip anyway.  Even if there was a crosswind, our crosswind runway is 16. 

A lady from Spanaflight came over and asked if we had seen what happened, we told her we had and she said she just had a weird feeling and needed to come outside.  She and Meg went over to where this guy parked and chatted with him to make sure everyone was all right.  He, two other adults (all were good sized) and a kid got out of the Cessna.  From where I was I heard bits and pieces of the conversation.  I heard “I declared an emergency” (Pilot) “Is everyone ok”  (Meg) and “Shorts” (Spanaflight lady). I later learned she asked if anyone needed a change of shorts.

Meg came back over and I told her I thought maybe we’d just spend the rest of our time going over my presolo written exam.  She agreed that would be a great idea.  We secured the airplane, and headed back in to the briefing room.  I think we were both a little shaken up. OK in all honesty, I was really shaken up.  Had the plane stalled in that turn, I can’t say for sure, but I think there’d be an NTSB team at or very near Thun field tonight.  As we were there talking about what we had just seen, Meg mentioned that the pilot had said “He couldn’t get his nose down” and then said “He forgot to add in the fuel!”  Apparently when they were chatting the pilot told Meg he thought they were at 1,800 pounds when they took off.  Well even I know our little 172 weighs 1,412 pounds EMPTY. Now add 3 good sized guys and a 12ish year old kid, and they are already over 1,800 lbs.  Add in up to 40 gallons of fuel at 6 lbs per gallon and there’s another 240 lbs.  I don’t know what the maximum takeoff weight is of that airplane, but ours is 2,300 pounds, ASSUMING it’s properly loaded.  They were probably approaching that, and if Meg could tell from the taxi it looked tail heavy, it likely wasn’t properly loaded. 

Meg has told me on countless occasions that the first two things that go out the window after you get your Private License are obtaining a proper weather briefing and doing weight and balance calculations.  I can tell you after what I saw today, I’ll NEVER forget to do weight & balance. EVER.  I’ve also watched enough videos about VFR pilots flying into IMC to know I’m always going to have at least two or three sources of weather before I depart too. 

Today I’m not the least bit sad I had the shortest flight at the airport.  It could have been much worse, I could have had the second shortest flight.  As I try to sleep tonight, I am really thankful I didn’t see what I was sure I was going to see this morning.  I’m glad that pilot lived to see another day.  I hope he learned something valuable.  I know I did. 

2 Comments on “A Lesson In Weight & Balance…The Hard Way”

    1. Yes, although the engine was still running, so maybe it’s a "just barely possible" turn. 😉

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