A friend of mine recently asked me if I actually did a weight-and-balance calculation before every flight. When I answered yes, he seemed somewhat taken aback. “Really?!” he quizzed, somewhat perplexed.
His sense of wonderment shouldn’t come as a surprise. Few pilots venture into the air without performing this task. Unfortunately, such oversights of responsibility aren’t always limited to just weight and balance. Flight planning doesn’t have to be quite so wearisome, particularly if pilots contrive a structured method to take on the feat. And no one in aviation knows the best flight-planning methods as well as the airlines. This has a lot to do with the fact that air carriers fly all over the world, day or night, and in all kinds of weather.
Individual pilots obviously don’t have hordes of dispatchers at their beck and call, nor do they have access to the superfluity of resources available to most airline flight operations departments. But general-aviation pilots can make their lives easier by mimicking the paperwork that’s generated for air carrier flights. By doing things the airline way, pilots can have a standardized set of paperwork that’s harmoniously organized and versatile enough to use on every sort of flight, from pattern work to long cross-countries.
Airline pilots get this methodical paperwork, referred to as a dispatch release, prior to each flight. Details of the route of flight, fuel load and burn, expected operational weights as well as a few other items are found on the multiple pages of the release. Final weight-and-balance numbers are presented once the actual fuel and payload become known. The release and accompanying weight and balance make a neat package that satisfies all regulatory and practical requirements.
While there obviously are differences between general-aviation (GA) and airline flying, the gist of flight planning is nonetheless the same. FAR 91.103 is specific about the requisite GA pilot preflight duties. For all flights, pilots need to confirm that the runways they intend to use are suitably long enough for takeoff and landing. The only way to realistically perform this task is to know how much the airplane weighs, which, of course, requires a weight-and-balance calculation. Clearly, a pilot also needs to know this detail in order to confirm that the aircraft is being operated within weight limitations. Bear in mind that this ought to be accomplished prior to even the simplest of flights.
For flights conducted under IFR, as well as those not in the vicinity of the airport, the flight-planning rules get even more exacting. Fuel calculations are a no-brainer necessity, as is the need to check weather reports. Alternative courses of action in case the flight can’t be completed need to be evaluated. This can be dealt with as simply as designating an appropriate alternate airport or by a more complex consideration of all possible landing sights along one’s route. Delays need to be checked, although this applies mostly to IFR flights. Of course, runway data must be examined, per regulation.
Undoubtedly, there are several tasks to complete before heading out to the plane, all of which can seem rather overwhelming when faced without the proper strategy. Perhaps this is why many pilots don’t take the time to complete the requisite preflight tasks. Regrettably, if you neglect to perform these necessary actions and are ramp-checked or, even worse, something goes wrong, it’ll be hard to prove that you complied with any of the regulatory requirements. However, if you hand the FAA inspector a polished, methodical package of your work, it’s guaranteed that the feds will be impressed, making it less likely that you’ll face further scrutiny.
So how do you go about developing such a package, doing things the airline way? First, you need to plan your route of flight. Next, translate distances into flight times. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation Flight Planner Form serves as a terrific guide to keep the route, weather and flight plan data coordinated. Even if you’re just staying in the pattern or the local area, estimate how long you plan to stay aloft. With this flight time information in hand, you then can determine your fuel requirements.
By using a spreadsheet or word-processing program, you can create a fuel form that has an entry to type departure and arrival airports, date and aircraft N-number (see Figure 1). Next, arrange the form in a way that’s most comfortable for you to use. It’s easiest to make fuel calculations if you include lines for taxi, climb, cruise, descent, missed approach, alternate airport and reserve fuel needs. When you add up all your fuel requirements, including reserves, you end up with a number that the airlines call minimum fuel (take advantage of the spreadsheet equation functions to do the adding for you, as it will reduce the likelihood of mathematical errors). Logically, this is the minimum amount of fuel you should have on board prior to departure. Your minimum fuel should be less than the actual fuel on board. If the fuel requirements and the fuel available are close, it’s wise to plan on a fuel stop.
Now create a weight-and-balance form. Include the date and the N-number in addition to anything else you wish to incorporate. Set up the spreadsheet so that it automatically adds the weights of front-seat passengers, back-seat passengers, cargo area weights and the weight of the fuel. You can have the program multiply these weights by the appropriate CGs to get moment values. Simply have the spreadsheet add up the moments and then divide the total moment by the total weight. Presto! You’ve got your aircraft CG. All you have to do is check the POH to check that you’re within limits.
Once you know your weights and fuel burns, you can move on to runway data. Airlines use something called runway analysis to determine which runway they can use. Runway analysis books contain the maximum weight an aircraft can depart a particular runway and have different corrections to this weight based on elements like weather conditions and aircraft configuration. We GA pilots aren’t so fortunate to have such well-thought-out data and must instead assay things longhand. Yet if we create a standard form (see Figure 2) that can be used over and over, it will help cut future preflight workloads. When making such a form, include spaces for the names of all the airports you intend to visit, the date and the aircraft N-number. Provide a line or two for each runway that you intend to use. Include the runway length for later reference. To determine the expected takeoff and landing distances, consider the worst-case scenario—use the next highest weight, temperature, etc., as found in the POH. This will help take into account different pilot technique, aircraft performance reduction due to wear and tear, and so on. An even better idea is to use the distances over a 50-foot obstacle for extra padding. Finally, insert the calculated distances next to the apposite runway for comparison. If the two numbers are close, it’s probably smart to use a short-field technique or choose another runway.
With all of these computations complete, it’s time to compile everything on your own dispatch release (see Figure 3). Make the form as fancy or as simple as you’d like; it basically needs to summarize your efforts. To do this, indicate the date, N-number and route of flight. Next, make a list of required items: fuel, alternate course of action, weather, delays, runway information and CG. Next to them, put a box or circle in which you can mark to indicate that each item has been completed. By printing and assembling this document, along with the other papers, all your preflight regulatory requirements will be covered. The nice thing about it, too, is that the documents will all be together in one place, and it ends up looking quite professional.
It sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? But keep in mind that 90% of the work is necessary when first creating the documents. From that point forward, the time you’ll save is immense, considering that all the forms easily are recycled. Just put in the right date, pick the right N-number, and a set of updated documents are ready to go. Flight instructors and students alike can reap the benefits of having forms readily available that apply to most, if not all, of the flights they make on a regular basis. Additionally, this methodology works well for any kind of flight, from the generic one-hour training flight to treks of several hundred miles.
So, during a weather delay, create some of these airline-like forms to make your next flight easier and safer. It’s safe to say that an FAA ramp check will go a lot better with an organized set of paperwork that proves you’ve done your duties instead of fabricating and using “the dog ate my weight-and-balance” excuse. Lastly, it’s not just about fulfilling requirements; it’s about taking pride in your work. And there’s no doubt that you’ll look and feel more professional because of your efforts.
High-Tech Flight Planning
In addition to the customized forms, some people also go the electronic way and use flight-planning software on CDs or online. Going high-tech can make any calculations and prep work a breeze. The following is a list of electronic flight planners that easily can be integrated into your pre-departure routine:
CSC DUATS And Stenbock And Everson DUATS Golden Eagle FlightPrep Software—A flight-planning, filing and weather-briefing tool that features flight planning using relief of IFR charts, and NEXRAD overlay and graphical TFRs on both relief and IFR charts. Contact: DUATS, (800) 345-3828, [email protected], www.duats.com.
DTC DUAT Website—Get airport information and diagrams, store briefing requests and see weather along your route of flight with route overlays—all by just logging on to the DTC DUAT Website. Contact: DTC DUAT, (800) 243-3828, [email protected], www.duat.com.
IMAPS Group Destination Direct—Flight-planning and moving-map software for home or in-cockpit PCs with current U.S. government DAFIF and FAA navigation data and real-time WxWorx in-cockpit weather system. Contact: IMAPS Group, (888) 227-5225.
Jeppesen FliteStar v9.0—Includes weather, TFRs, airport information, FBO data, airspace, terrain, weight and balance, and cost information for each of your flights. Contact: Jeppesen, (800) 621-5377, www.jeppesen.com.
RMS Technology Flitesoft—Provides graphic and automatic flight planning, weight-and-balance checks, weather briefings, a bargain fuel locator, a pilot logbook and automatic functions for important planning tasks. Contact: RMS Technology, (800) 533-3211, [email protected], www.rmstek.com.
Seattle Avionics Voyager Version 2.0—Features 3-D, wind-optimized SmartRouter AutoRouter, SmartWeather and Internet connectivity. Contact: Seattle Avionics, (425) 455-2209, www.seattleavionics.com.