Friday afternoon, a Cessna 172 took off from Oakland County airport just north of Detroit, Michigan. Witnesses say that the plane got up to about 100 feet, and the pilot radioed the tower that he was "overweight" and requested to return to the airport. The plane then crashed and burned, killing all four aboard.
Too Much Weight May Have Caused Fatal Plane Crash
Reading the news stories, a few clues stood out. First off, the pilot was 19 years old. The passengers were his mom, his step-dad and his step-brother. I'm willing to bet that this young fellow had just completed flight school and was anxious to show off his new-found flying ability to the family. I've been there, and I think that most every pilot has. However, 4 adults in a Cessna 172 is kinda pushing the weight and balance a bit. Yes, the 172 was built as a 4-seat aircraft, but that designation stems from the day when the average adult weighed in at about 185lbs. These days, they tend to weigh a fair bit more, and Michigan in particular is not exactly known as a fitness mecca.
So a huge load, and probably full tanks. Technically the plane should have been able to do it, but it would have been pretty sluggish and climbed out a lot differently than the low-time pilot who likely never flew with anything heavier than an instructor pilot had ever experienced. Again, been there. The first time I lifted off a short runway on a hot day with another hefty passenger, a ton of luggage and a German Shepherd dog...wow. Fortunately for me, I knew to get the nose down quick and build airspeed. I came away a bit wiser, but I had a couple hundred hours' flying experience by then. I'm guessing that the late Troy Brothers here rotated back, felt the plane mush out, heard the stall horn warn of an impending power-on stall, and he panicked. They say that he asked permission to return to the runway, and I'm willing to bet that he tried to bank the aircraft into a U-turn, only he was too low and slow, and when he banked, he lost what little lift he still had and the rest of the story lies smoking in the field just off the departure end of the runway.
Damn shame. But this is exactly why I treat my Cessna as a three-passenger plane despite it's classification as a four-passenger model. That, and the fact that mine's nearly half a century old. It's present engine is low time, but the wings and fuselage have seen some weathering and wear over the decades and they aren't quite as smooth and aerodynamic as they used to be. Mine's fine with two passengers, or one adult and a dog (and light baggage), but gambling that the engineers built a hefty enough safety reserve into the plane's specs to cover your overloading isn't a good idea as physics are pretty unyielding when you cross that magic line. I'd be willing to bet that Mr. Brothers just learned that lesson the hard way, albeit a bit too late to benefit from it.