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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

A weighty decision

Weight and balance calculations are an important part of a pilot's preflight preparation. Failure to ensure that an airplane is loaded within limits can be deadly. The crash of a Piper Malibu Mirage on August 4, 2000, in Augusta, Georgia, is a prime example of what can happen when a pilot tries to take off in an overloaded airplane.

On the morning of the accident, the fuel tanks were filled, luggage was loaded, and the pilot, his two passengers, and their large dog boarded the aircraft. The 3,900-foot takeoff runway has an upslope of 1.2 degrees. The opposite down-sloping runway was available at the time of the accident with nearly calm winds.

Witnesses said that during the takeoff, the airplane was about 10 feet above the runway in a nose-high attitude, but not climbing. The Mirage narrowly cleared a six-foot fence at the departure end, and struck a utility pole, the roof of a bus stop, and a brick wall 150 feet beyond the pole. The pilot and passengers were killed. The airplane was loaded with cargo weighing 268 pounds. The pilot and passengers were a combined weight of 627 pounds, and the fuel tanks contained 120 gallons (720 pounds) of 100LL fuel. The basic empty weight of the Mirage was 3,097 pounds. According to Piper, the maximum takeoff weight is 4,318 pounds. The airplane was 394 pounds over gross at takeoff. The commercial pilot had more than 6,000 hours of total flight time, including 80 hours in the Mirage.

According to the NTSB, the cause of this accident was the pilot's improper preflight planning, which resulted in an attempted departure in an airplane that exceeded the weight and balance limitations. A factor in the accident was the attempted takeoff from a short, up-sloping runway.

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Ups and Downs of Takeoffs and Landings Safety Advisor reports that 50 percent of all accidents occur during takeoff or landing. Departing on an up-sloping runway will result in a longer takeoff distance, and acceleration of the aircraft will be slower. An overweight takeoff will also result in reduced climb performance.

Kristen Hummel manages the aviation safety database for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings.

By Kristen Hummel

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