General Aviation

Published on February 23rd, 2020 | by FII Reader

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ILAFFT – TOO FAT TO FLY?

The famous saying goes “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” I Learned About Flying From That is a great way for pilots to share their stories of the mistakes they’ve made in the past and how they’ve learned from it. If you have an interesting story, feel free to send it to us, you can change some of the details if you want 😉

By Michael McRitchie

My most frightening flying lesson – and I’ve self-administered a few – began with an early phone call from my friend Jim. Could I help his relatives who had to return to Belfast immediately from their holiday in the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland? Travel by air or the Stranraer-Larne ferry would take a day, but my Arrow could bring them home in less than an hour from the nearby Strathallan airfield.

Strathallan had closed some years before, but a phone call to its friendly parachute club brought permission and runway info. After filing a flight plan and quick GAR clearances from Billy our helpful policeman I touched down on Strathallan’s 700-yd runway at 1005, which I thought was pretty good.

My passengers arrived minutes later. I’ll call them Paul and Paula, for they were the biggest people I had ever seen though 35 years later, I daily see their equal. Not only were they grossly obese, they had two cases and a set of golf clubs complete with trolley. Hold that taxi, I said, for this little aeroplane won’t lift that lot. They repacked their bare essentials into one case and sent the rest back to await collection from the hotel.

Paula spilled across most of the back seat. The lap strap just about made it round her waist, the diagonal disappeared into a cleavage like the Grand Canyon. I slid into my seat while Paul puffed his way in beside me, again taking the lap strap to its limit. Full aft stick was possible only with his seat right back, which was good in that it took him closer to the aircraft CG.

Only then did it dawn on me that these very pleasant but huge people might exceed the Arrow’s weight limit even with less than half tanks. But they were strapped in, the police had cleared them, anyway what could I say – Sorry, but you’re too fat to fly? Uneasily, I taxied to the very end of the grass which fortunately was dry and not too long, opened up against the brakes, and off we went.

Gone was the Arrow’s usual acceleration, though the dials were in the green. A third of the runway went by with no response from the elevator, then half. At last I felt the oleos lightening as the wings took up the load, and let the Arrow rise a few inches to make the most of ground effect before pointing the nose at the fast approaching fence as the ASI crept slowly round the dial – 75, 80, 85 until at last I could ease back the stick to clear the fence by no more than three feet.

From C of A flight testing I knew my fully loaded Arrow would climb at almost 1000 fpm, but that morning she could barely manage 800 and it took a while to reach FL080 for the flight home. Descent was no problem of course and we arrived with all the delicacy of a sack of spuds although I had approached at 100mph rather than my usual 85-90. As we helped Paula down from the wing I’ll swear the Arrow breathed a sigh of relief, but maybe it was just the oleos extending.

Paul and Paula were delighted with their first flight, and I didn’t spoil it by telling them how close we had been to disaster. Indeed they were so pleased that they asked to go back to Strathallan the following day, but I’d had enough of heavy haulage and swiftly remembered the Arrow required a maintenance check.

Looking back almost 40 years, of course I should never have taken off with both of them. I now know we must have been easily 200lb overweight on a fairly short runway and only a stiff breeze and my hundreds of hours on a very tolerant aeroplane had saved us from disaster. For the rest of my flying days I paid scrupulous attention to loading.

Four decades on, Britain has become the fattest nation in western Europe with one in three adults being classed as obese, something ‘light’ aviation might bear in mind. In these PC times I make no judgment on anyone’s physique, but maybe it’s time for a set of scales to enter the preflight checklist?

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