Location, location, location. The top three things a real estate agent looks for are also the top three things pilots should consider when loading an aircraft or deciding where to complete an off-airport landing. AVweb's Howard Fried considers how loading can impact an aircraft's handling and how choosing a suitable landing area will maximize the likelihood of being able to use the aircraft again.
September 26, 1999
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
on the title, if you thought this column would deal with locating a place to set
an airplane down in the event you were to be confronted with an unscheduled
off-airport landing (a forced landing), you would be mistaken. However, if you
really want to know my opinions on that subject, stick around and I'll tell you,
but first things first.
Many manufacturers of general aviation airplanes build airplanes with more
seats than the airplane can legally fill and carry. In most cases, the claim is
made that "this is a four-place airplane" but if four of the average,
hypothetical 170-pound, adult human beings are loaded into the machine and it is
filled with fuel and baggage, the airplane is not legal to fly. This, of course,
is an invitation to the pilot to get him/herself into serious trouble.
As a Designated Pilot Examiner, I would look over the applicant's weight and
balance work and ask several questions during the oral portion of the practical
test. I think it is important for a pilot to not only know that it is a bad idea
to overload an airplane, but why.
A typical loading graph showing the aircraft 2,000 lbs. overloaded but within
extended CG limits.
Me: Ok, here we are. The top of the envelope is 6,000 pounds and we have
loaded the airplane to 8,000 pounds, but within the extended envelope. Will it
fly? Yes, no, or maybe?
Applicant: Some would say "No," some "Yes", and others
"I don't know."
Me: Of course it would fly, so why don't we do it?
Applicant: Its dangerous.
Me: Sure is, but why? What's wrong with doing it?
Applicant: It might not get off the ground.
Me: Sure it would. It will take
a longer take-off roll, but we've got 6,000 feet of runway. It won't climb
very well, but there are no obstructions out there, so we can get off and
climb OK, so what's wrong?
Applicant: It might be too heavy to land without breaking something.
Me: True. What else can happen?
Applicant: Gee, I don't know.
Me: OK, let's see. It weighs 8,000 pounds sitting on the ground. Suppose we
climb up to a nice, safe altitude and rack it over into a 60-degree bank. How
much does it weigh?
Applicant: A lot more.
Me: Exactly 16,000 pounds (that's why I picked a 60-degree bank angle
because that's the point at which the aircraft experiences 2 Gs and its weight doubles) and it might not take
that. Someplace along there the wings will fold up or fall off, and they don't
fly very well without their wings. That's why we don't overload the airplane.
Now, let's be very careful. We'll take off, make very shallow banked turns and
shallow climbs. What else can come along and do the same thing to the airplane
and we have no control over it?
Applicant: Rough air.
Me: That's right. Turbulence is the word I was looking for.
A typical loading graph showing the CG out
of limits aft.
For my next Q & A on the subject of weight and balance, I would draw
another envelope and locate the center of gravity within the weight limit, but
forward of the envelope, and start out:
Me: We always hear about the disastrous effect of loading out of the
envelope aft, but how about being out forward? Suppose we load the airplane
like this, with the CG out in front. Once again, would it fly?
Applicant: We might not have enough up elevator to get it off the ground.
Me: That's true, but suppose we could get it off and flying by holding the
yoke full back. When would we have a problem?
Applicant: When we want to come down and try to flare.
Me: You've got that right!
A few years ago we had an incident in our district that graphically
demonstrated the effect of being loaded too far forward. A Cessna 206 with the
rear door and all but the two front seats removed took off with two heavyweights
in the front and a load of skydivers sitting on the floor. When the jumpers
departed the airplane, the pilot returned to land, but he lacked sufficient
elevator authority to flare, executed a one-point landing on the nosewheel and
crumpled up the whole front end of the airplane.
A typical loading graph showing the CG out
of limits forward.
We would then have a discussion of the effect of being out of the envelope
aft. Again drawing the envelope, I would locate the CG way out aft as in this
illustration and ask:
Me: OK, let's load it like this. Now will it fly?
Me: I don't know, and I'm not going to find out. They don't pay me to be a
test pilot! But supposing we loaded it like this and got it off the ground. Of
course it would leap into the air, and by holding the yoke full forward we
manage to keep it level, but there may come a time when we have to get that
nose down and we are unable to do so. When is it that we have to get the nose
Applicant: When we want to descend for a landing.
Me: Naw. All we have to do is reduce the power and keep holding the nose up
and it will come down OK. However there must be a time when we simply have to
get that nose down. Can you think of such a time?
Applicant: Yeah, if we stall.
Me: You got that right! Get into a stall situation; shove forward on the
yoke, no response, and the next step is the SSCB syndrome stall, spin,
crash, and burn, a very unhealthy situation in which to find one's self. The
result is very hard on the human body. That's why it's so very important to
stay within the envelope, both respect to the weight we carry, but where we
put it as well.
Aren't you glad you didn't take your private checkride with me and have to go
through all that?
And now, for those of you who read the title of this column expecting to
learn something about unscheduled off-airport landings, and have waded through
all the above waiting for me to do so, I will explain my policy. I never tell
anyone how to fly or what to do. I explain what I do and why, and if the
listener (or reader) likes what he or she hears or reads, they can do as I do,
and if they don't, they are certainly free to do as they please.
By the time I had been flying for 45 years and had logged well over 30,000
hours, I had had three unscheduled landings in airplanes (gliders don't count),
and I decided that on average one every 15 years was something I could live
with. If another 15 years were to elapse before I had my next one it was okay
with me. I'm a firm believer in the principle that nothing's happening so fast
that you have to panic. It is panic that kills pilots. Therefore, step one is to
keep your cool. Also, I realize that it is better to be lucky than skillful.
The first of my three forced landings because of power failure was in a Piper
J-3 Cub and was due to carburetor ice. I was in the rear seat and had just
completed a loop when the front-seat occupant, another pilot along for the ride,
announced, "Let's see how good you are. FORCED LANDING!," and he
retarded the throttle to idle on the back side of the loop. I told him where I
intended to put the airplane down (a beautiful lawn on a large estate in
suburban Cleveland). He allowed that that was okay, and let go of the throttle,
which he had been holding full back. I advanced the throttle and the engine
sputtered and quit, so I went ahead and landed on the area I had selected. The
engine continued to idle as it ingested the water from the melted ice, after
which it responded to the application of throttle input and I flew out of there.
The next time it happened to me, I was on downwind in the pattern with a
student who had made his first solo the previous day. My intention was to do a
few landings with him and if he still had it all together, send him out for an
hour of landings by himself. On the last of these dual turns around the patch
the cockpit suddenly filled with smoke. Meanwhile the tower advised us that we
were trailing clouds of white smoke from the engine. The engine quit. I took
over the controls and completed the pattern and landing, with just enough
momentum to turn off the active runway on to the taxiway. The airplane, a Cessna
150, was towed to the hangar where a large (1/2 inch) crack was discovered in
one of the cylinders.
The third of my forced landing experiences was another off-airport event.
This was the most interesting of all. I was with a brand new instrument student
on his first session with me. We were flying a Piper PA-28R (Arrow) and
returning from his lesson. It was a hot summer day with one mile visibility in
haze and we were executing the back course approach to runway 27L.l was flying
and demonstrating the approach. As we passed the final fix, I pulled the plug,
popped the gear and applied approach flaps. We descended to the Minimum Descent
Altitude (400 feet AGL), at which point we were about a mile and a half from the
airport couldn't quite see it through the haze. I advanced the throttle to
drive it in and complete the landing, but the engine continued to idle as it
also continued to sink.
Directly in front of us was a lake, so I retracted the gear and flaps,
preparing for a splash-down in the water, while advising the local tower
controller that I was going down. Going through my mind was the thought that I
didn't want to get wet, and have to fish the airplane out of the lake. Glancing
out the side window, I saw a field (about eight hundred feet square) with an
eighty-five foot tree line surrounding it and a motorcycle track running
diagonally across it, so I extended the gear and landed on the sandy motorcycle
track. We rolled to a stop within about forty feet, the main gear sinking
approximately three inches in the soft sand.
We went into a nearby restaurant and I called my office. I told the secretary
to call the tower and advise them that we were on the ground with no damage and
no injury, and to send someone out to get us. The police and fire department
arrived on the scene almost immediately and there ensued a jurisdictional
dispute as to who had jurisdiction, the local police or the airport personnel.
There's an interesting aftermath to this one. As I stood there in the middle
of the field surrounded by cops, firemen and airport people, I was concerned
about just how I was going to get the airplane out. No way could I fly it out
(remember the soft sand surface and the eighty-five foot tree line around the
field), I couldn't afford to hire an external load helicopter to haul it out,
and to remove the wings of a low wing airplane and truck it out would be quite a
project. Fortunately the police lieutenant on duty at the scene was a former
student of mine, and he volunteered to arrange with the night duty officer to
let me taxi it back down the road to the airport in the middle of the night. So
at 2:30 the next morning, in a blinding rainstorm with a police escort both
leading and following, after wiring the throttle linkage which had come loose
causing the power loss back together, I taxied the airplane back to the airport.
The next morning I had the experience of seeing a picture of the airplane in the
middle of the road on the front page of the local newspaper.
Incidentally, we had the same thing happen with another Arrow with a TSIO-360
engine, this time with another of our instructors and students aboard. In that
case they were on short final and made the runway. In both cases we filed
Service Difficulty Reports.
In each of these three instances, I am well aware of the fact that it was
more luck than skill on my part that saved the day. I know that it is
recommended that the pilot not think about saving the airplane, only himself,
but that seems to be impossible to do. I kept thinking of the best way to
salvage the airplane fly it out if possible.
As an examiner, I found that many students are not properly taught how to
respond to a power loss emergency. They frequently would waste precious time
attempting a restart. The loss of an engine in a single engine airplane is one
of the very few occasions where it is absolutely essential that the pilot do
things "by the numbers" in sequence. You must:
1. Keep your cool and do as you were taught. Keep flying the airplane.
Nothing's happening so fast that you have to panic! Panic is the killer.
2. Look around, select a suitable landing area,* plan your approach and
start maneuvering toward it. Remember, all you've got going for you is the few
precious seconds of time before you encounter mother earth, for surely you
will. Even the United States Congress can't repeal the law of gravity. If you
waste time attempting a restart as you are gently sinking toward the ground,
you may find that there is no longer a suitable landing area available to you
and the airplane may put you into a very unsuitable place. Control the
airplane and the situation!
3. Then and only then should you attempt a restart as time permits. Three
things are required to make an internal combustion engine work: fuel, air, and
spark. Check 'em! If you are successful at restarting the engine, fly on about
your business, if not, go ahead and land on the area you selected and you
controlled the airplane into, instead of permitting it to put you into an
*On the subject of "suitable landing area," it
is my opinion that a road (except for the median or a straight stretch of
divided highway) is a terrible place to attempt to land in the daytime.
There are almost always wires criss-crossing the road and you can't see them
until you get there. If possible, select a pasture or open field. If it is a
plowed field, land with the furrows and into the wind if possible. At night,
a road may be the best choice and you just have to take your chances with
Except for mountainous and forested areas, I have this supreme confidence
that there's almost no place I can be that I can't put one of these two or
four-place airplanes down with no injury and only minor damage at most.
Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this column, please
post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That way others may benefit
from your input.