Eye of Experience #19:
Where Do You Put It, and Why?

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

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.

Eye Of ExperienceBased 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.

Balance. And Weight.

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.

...Out The Back...

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.

...The Really Bad One

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?

Applicant: Probably.

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 down?

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?

Unscheduled Landings

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 Time...

A very nice J-3 CubThe 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 Second Time...

A Cessna 150The 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.

...And The Third

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.

A Piper Arrow.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.

What To Do?

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:

Aftermath of an off-airport landing on a street.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 unsuitable place.

*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 the wires.

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.