Takeoff Weight Studied In Charlotte Crash

CHARLOTTE -- Flying too close to the known limits for a plane's weight and balance can have catastrophic consequences for a commuter aircraft -- as the crash that killed 21 people in Charlotte earlier this month may have shown.

Investigators have yet to establish the cause of the crash of the US Airways Express flight, which went down at the airport Jan. 8 after taking off at an extremely steep angle.

But they are focusing on the possibility that heavy takeoff weight and improper weight distribution combined with a malfunctioning elevator, the tail assembly that controls the plane's pitch, to cause the accident.

The crash has focused attention on how the industry calculates the weight of its passengers and cargo. And it has raised questions about whether that method is realistic in this land of expanding waistlines.

The plane was full, with 16 men, two women and one child among the 19 passengers. Air Midwest, the airline that operated the flight, assumes -- with Federal Aviation Administration approval -- that passengers flying in winter average 175 pounds each, including clothing and carry-ons.

But given the super-sizing of American waistlines (adult men averaged 180.7 pounds in 1994, the most recent year in which statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are available) and the increased size and weight of carry-ons, that standard could have been exceeded on the flight.

Investigators have said the plane's captain and a member of the ground crew debated before takeoff whether the flight was overloaded.

John Goglia, the National Transportation Safety Board member who headed the crash scene investigation, said a ground crew member believed the plane was limited to 26 bags. Goglia said Capt. Katie Leslie decided that all 31 checked bags could remain on board. He said pilots and others interviewed during the investigation thought the plane "looked heavy" as it prepared for takeoff.

Air Midwest assumes -- again, with FAA approval -- that each piece of checked baggage weighs 25 pounds on average. But some in the industry believe that estimate is too low.

The maximum takeoff weight for the Beech 1900 that crashed in Charlotte is just over 17,000 pounds. The NTSB has said that, according to the plane's documentation at least, it was within 100 pounds of that weight.

As for its weight distribution, Goglia has said that the plane was within 1 percent of the rearward limit for its center of gravity. (The more luggage that is put in the back of the plane, the farther to the rear the plane's center of gravity moves. Flight rules specify the farthest point that is allowable.)

Given those conditions, said Paul Czysz, a professor emeritus of aviation and engineering at St. Louis University, a miscalculation could have easily made the plane unbalanced. For example, too many bags in the rear baggage compartment or several heavyset people seated in the rear could have upset the balance.

Czysz and others said that airplane weight limits generally have a built-in safety margin, much like the "empty" line on automobile gas tanks. "You could be 10 percent over the weight limit of an airplane and still fly it," Czysz said.

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-- From News Services