back to article Data entry REAR-END SNAFU: Weighty ballsup leads to plane take-off flap

We're all accustomed to tales of woe that children are becoming too fat, but how about too-light kiddies spoiling the balance of an aircraft? An error at Australia's Canberra airport left a 168-seat Boeing 737 struggling to take off because a group of 87 schoolchildren was entered into the check-in system as adults. As noted …

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  1. json

    As the saying goes..

    ...a nose heavy plane flies poorly, a tail heavy plane flies once.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Makes a change from blaming fat people....

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        .... they were all in the front seats, munching the donuts meant for the children.

  2. Dave Bell

    There is nothing new in this, other than how the miscalculation happened. And I wouldm't like to bet on historical assumed weights being all that reliable today. Could they put an automatic weighing machine under the passengers queuing for that security check?

    1. Anonymous IV

      Wouldn't weighing them infringe the passengers' Human Rights?

      And, most importantly for the check-in staff, Why Didn't They Think Of The Children?

    2. Ledswinger Silver badge

      " Could they put an automatic weighing machine under the passengers queuing for that security check?"

      Good idea. And then combine the baggage and passenger weight allowance to make everything fair.

      1. tony2heads
        Thumb Down

        @ Ledswinger

        I would have a severely negative baggage allowance

        However if I were running an airline I would split up any group of children so that no two sit next to each other; I remember how some boys would always misbehave at the back of the bus on any school trips.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Not fair

        ...But then Americans wouldn't be able to afford to fly anywhere...

    3. Raumkraut

      > Could they put an automatic weighing machine under the passengers queuing for that security check?

      Rather than the error-prone process of getting ignorant passengers to cooperate with ignorant airport staff and poorly-designed/maintained boarding equipment, I would have thought that some kind of sensor on the front landing gear's suspension would quite easily be able to determine whether the plane was overly front-heavy/light?

      1. Cliff

        >> I would have thought that some kind of sensor on the front landing gear's suspension would quite easily be able to determine whether the plane was overly front-heavy/light?<<

        I'd been thinking about this myself, and the three points of static, standing contact with the ground really ought to be able to triangulate loads and balance/centre of mass. In fact this is so important to get right, I'm stunned they're not already doing this.

        1. roytrubshaw

          The Pendolino trains (Pendolini?) seem to have it. (Sensors attached to the suspension system, I mean.) I have - at least once - been on a train where the driver has refused to continue because one car (out of nine at the time) was overloaded. The train manager informed me that there was no point in him even trying as the software would apply the brakes almost immediately should he attempt to move the train in an 'unsafe' configuration.

          My point is that if they can apply it to a nineteenth century form of transport why not the following century too?

        2. phil dude

          tare weight...

          A pilot had told me that is what they actually do (strain gauge on wheels) - at least for commuter planes. In the USA I have had to "move to balance the plane" more than once, so I imagine the weight of the plane is not an unknown parameter!!!

          Must be something else going on...

          P.

          1. Nigel 11

            Re: tare weight...

            Commuter flight. The smaller the plane, the more easily it can be unbalanced. One twenty-stone passenger at one end and two small children at the other are a significant imbalance, if the plane seats twenty rather than two hundred.

            In passing, this is the real reason they'll upgrade economy class passengers to business-class if business-class isn't anywhere near full. A tail-heavy plane is unsafe. Passengers in business class are a necessity for safe operation!

        3. Vic

          I'm stunned they're not already doing this.

          It was first introduced on the Boeing 707. Airbus also have a similar system.

          I'm told it's not that useful on account of wind blowing over some large aerofoil surfaces attached to the fuselage...

          Airbus aircraft can measure the performance in flight and determine aircraft loading that way.

          Vic.

        4. Lars Silver badge

          "In fact this is so important to get right, I'm stunned they're not already doing this." In that industry there always has to be a big accident before anything will change.

        5. dubious

          Pretty sure I read about strain sensors in the landing gear to measure weight 30 years ago in a Richard Scarry book.

          Now, I'll concede that it probably wasn't the last word in aeronautical textbooks, but one assumes he did some research!

      2. Brian O'Byrne

        There is one problem with that approach: the test is very late in the process.

        Pilots and crews are busy enough in the final few minutes before takeoff. You are talking about adding another technical check at that busy time.

        If there is a problem detected what should they do? You need more procedures and to determine how to correct the weight distribution and the co-operation of the passengers.

        The existing procedures should work. They failed in this case because there was a problem at checkin: the children were checked in as adults. Adding another test at that time would be much more cost-effective than adding a test minutes before pushback.

        1. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

          All systems go for take-off

          Pilots and crews are busy enough in the final few minutes before takeoff. You are talking about adding another technical check at that busy time.

          I would rather they do that check before they trundle down the runway and find themselves up shit creek during take-off. It shouldn't be an overly onerous or time consuming check; probably just checking whether the "out of kilter" light is red or green. It's not like we are asking pilots to do something pointless. And lives are at stake, including the pilots' own.

        2. Nigel 11

          If there is a problem detected what should they do? You need more procedures and to determine how to correct the weight distribution and the co-operation of the passengers.

          This is the sort of thing that the plane's computer should do. Check the loading. Do nothing if it's within optimal operating parameters. Alert the crew if it's sub-optimal, so that they are forewarned and can decide whether other conditions (bad weather etc.) make it necessary cancel the take-off. And refuse the allow the plane to fly, whatever the crew might think, if it's so badly ourt of balance that attempting take-off is likely to be disastrous.

          So the flight crew would get an orange light maybe one flight in twenty, and a red light once in a blue moon, and air travel would become slightly safer. What to tell the passengers if it's a red light? That the plane is unable to fly because of a red light that has to be investigated. If the problem is in the passenger distribution, that should be obvious to the flight attendants once they are told to look. I expect more often, it's in the cargo hold.

          Not having any instrumentation so the problem can't be detected until the plane is halfway down the runway, is crazy. That may well be too late. One of these days, just when the pilot needs more thrust than usual, there will be an engine failure. Most disasters happen because too many things go wrong at once, not because just one thing fails.

          1. Vic

            This is the sort of thing that the plane's computer should do

            No, absolutely not.

            De-skilling the pilot's job is what leads to accidents - Air France has several crashes that are entirely because the pilot(s) decided to put all their trust in the computers (and then failed to jnotice that the computer was telling them not to).

            Weights and balances calculations are a simple operation; all that's needed is for the check-in staff to *check* their passengers in properly.

            Not having any instrumentation so the problem can't be detected until the plane is halfway down the runway, is crazy. That may well be too late

            It isn't too late. The take-off procedure allows for this sort of error, and will leave the pilot plenty of room to abort the take-off if the aircraft cannot be flown. Aircraft designers aren't *all* idiots...

            Vic.

            1. Nigel 11

              Computers

              Having a computer take over as many of the boring pre-flight checks as it has instrumentation to perform is likely to increase safety. A computer will do the same thing over and over again with almost 100% reliability. It won't ever get bored or distracted. Humans aren't like that. They tend to miss items from long checklists, and sometimes miss even a red flag if they're bored.

              I agree about actually flying the plane, and the handling of critical situations in the air. In these cases, an experienced pilot's instincts are likely to work better than a computer following a completely fixed rule-set. It's a completely different situation to running through a checklist.

              1. Vic

                Re: Computers

                Having a computer take over as many of the boring pre-flight checks as it has instrumentation to perform is likely to increase safety. A computer will do the same thing over and over again with almost 100% reliability.

                I disagree. The computer will only process the data it is given - so it won't be able to do the sanity checks that a pilot can, because the pilot has additional information (e.g. he can stand at the door and watch the SLC do its stuff). The computer just doesn't have that data - so if there is an error of data entry, it is likely to go unnoticed. This can only reduce flight safety.

                I agree about actually flying the plane

                The nen-route section of the flight is the one place I am perfectly happy for the computers to do the work - as long as the pilots keep an effective watch and have the option to switch off the AP.

                Vic.

    4. petur
      Stop

      "Could they put an automatic weighing machine under the passengers queuing for that security check?"

      I fail to see how this would work with the current reservation system that most airlines have, where you can pick your seat yourself.

      At best, it would flag imbalance and cause seat reassignments shortly before departure (ie, chaos)

      1. Adam 1 Silver badge

        >At best, it would flag imbalance and cause seat reassignments shortly before departure (ie, chaos)

        If only they were carrying hundreds of tonnes of some sort of liquid that could be pumped into tanks in different parts of the aircraft to rebalance the weight.

        1. Nigel 11

          If only they were carrying hundreds of tonnes of some sort of liquid that could be pumped into tanks in different parts of the aircraft to rebalance the weight.

          Irony?

          The obvious problem with redistributing the fuel prior to take-off, is that for a flight destination close to the plane's maximum range, the tanks will all be close to full. Take-off and climbing to cruising altitude uses a significant fraction of the plane's fuel, after which optimally balancing the plane during the rest of the flight is part of normal operations.

          And of course, you would need to have instrumentation on the plane's undercarriage to detect the loading problem. Halfway down the runway is too late to rebalance the fuel load.

        2. Pookietoo

          re: hundreds of tonnes of some sort of liquid

          They dispose of much of that liquid before they arrive at their destination, and landing is a somewhat delicate procedure too.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Could they put an automatic weighing machine under the passengers queuing for that security check?"

      Make the plane docking station incorporate a weighing bridge. With several sensors they could also determine the weight distribution. Doesn't have to be mechanical. They could user lasers to determine how much the ground sinks - and they would know the plane's unloaded weight as a calibration check each time.

      1. Jaybus

        Weighing aircraft

        Yes, it is far easier and safer to integrate scales into the gate/docking station. No, it would not need to use lasers. The K.I.S.S principle always applies with aircraft procedures. Heavy duty truck scales should suffice. Obviously, these aircraft do not require extremely precise weight distribution measurements. Plus or minus 10% is likely good enough. This would also be far cheaper than retrofitting sensor systems into existing aircraft. The problem is, it shifts the cost from airlines to airports, and the airports will balk at the extra cost.

    6. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Could they put an automatic weighing machine under the passengers queuing for that security check?

      They do on flights with tiny planes, checking in for an Aer Arann flight to the Aran islands (6 passengers + pilot) we were all weighed with our hand luggage, and then told where to sit.

    7. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Weigh the customers

      I flew several flights on an airline with small (10-12 seats) planes in Costa Rica about 15 years ago and they weighed everyone and assigned seats based on each passengers weight. The only people who complained were American.

      1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Weigh the customers

        Were these Americans perhaps asked to sit on the wings? That might explain it

    8. yoganmahew

      Weights are up in the last fifteen years or so, adults used to be calculated at between 65 and 70 kilos, with kids at 35.

      There are trim wheels on planes, but I believe pilots are under instructions to accept the trim settings from the loadsheet. IANAP either, though...

      Right, over to pprune...

  3. T. F. M. Reader Silver badge

    Insurance?

    A single group of 87 schoolchildren and 9 adults from the same organization on the same plane? Were there any special insurance arrangements? Just wondering...

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Insurance?

      Why? It's not like these are key personnel for ${ORGANIZATION}

    2. Fonant

      Re: Insurance?

      I bet they all went into the same bus/coach to get to the airport. Much more likely to be all killed in a coach crash than a plane crash. Insurers are much more likely to worry about the costs of flight delays, or the children getting ill abroad, than the minuscule likelihood that a plane would crash.

  4. frank ly Silver badge

    the “adult weight” of 87kg

    I weigh 68kg (I'm 5'10" so my BMI is about 22) and regard myself as 'normal'. Am I actually 'skinny'?

    1. Red Bren

      Re: the “adult weight” of 87kg

      You read El Reg, you're definitely not normal!

    2. John H Woods Silver badge

      Re: the “adult weight” of 87kg

      At 1.78m and 68kg I think you're slimmer than average if you're male. You're the same height as me though ... anecdote:

      My Doctor: "You are 15 Stone. Do you know your BMI?"

      Me: "Of course, it's exactly twice my weight in Stone, 30"

      Dr: "That's not how you calculate it"

      Me: "It is if you are 5 foot 10"

      Dr: *fiddles with calculator, then laughs* "do you spend a lot of time sitting around thinking about maths?"

      Me: "Why do you think I'm so fat?"

    3. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: the “adult weight” of 87kg

      yes you are - but they allow 15kg for hand baggage, despite what the posted limits are. Passengers always overstuff the things.

      1. Nigel 11

        Re: the “adult weight” of 87kg

        Unless it's a RyanAir flight, where they fine you something silly for every extra ounce.

  5. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    Speaking of which, it has gone awfully quiet around MH-17?

    1. Ledswinger Silver badge

      Provisional report's due out in a day or two, IIRC. Hopefully the report will be technical and of high quality (as most air accident investigations are), but the public voice of Western powers will be much as before - airliner shot down by advanced SAM, don't really know who fired it, it crashed in separatist held territory, so it MUST be the separatists. In the same way that because Pan Am 103 crashed in Scotland, it had to be the fault of the SNP.

      1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

        Here's hoping that this won't be used to inflame the situation further.

        Fat chance, I know.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Does it really matter who shot it down?

          It was obviously a mistake, whoever did it. And there were no dreadful consequences when the USA accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger flight. I suppose we could politely ask everyone who might have done it to issue a conditional apology without admitting responsibility? It's funny how the media always seem to concentrate on some trivial aspect of a serious situation, like an amateur beheading, for example.

          1. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Does it really matter who shot it down?

            "And there were no dreadful consequences when the USA accidentally shot down an Iranian passenger flight"

            The USA stepped up right from the outset and said "oops". The people involved were disciplined and payouts were made.

            Compare and contrast to what's happened in Ukraine so far.

            1. Ledswinger Silver badge

              Re: @Alan Brown

              "The USA stepped up right from the outset and said "oops". The people involved were disciplined and payouts were made."

              Err, they had to be dragged to the international courts to pay up.

              And not only did the US award the crew combat ribbons for their performance in the gulf, the Vincennes air warfare coordinator received the USN Navy Commendation Medal, and later the commander of the Vincennes was awarded the Legion of Merit medal for his command of the ship.

            2. Vic

              Re: Does it really matter who shot it down?

              The USA stepped up right from the outset and said "oops". The people involved were disciplined and payouts were made.

              The USA refused to apologise. They made an ex-gratia payment, but did not admit or accept liability.

              Vic.

          2. Ledswinger Silver badge

            Re: Does it really matter who shot it down?

            "It was obviously a mistake, whoever did it. "

            What makes you say that? The alleged attack weapon was an advanced weapon capable of reaching high altitude that required multiple crew members, and two or three different ground vehicles. Whoever fired it and was able to hit a target flying six miles up at nearly 500 miles an hour miles up knew exactly what they were doing with complex anti-aircraft weaponry, and by definition would have known that civilian air traffic was operating in the area at that altitude, would have been able to deduce that this was civilian (from speed, altitude and course) and therefore knew this wasn't either a Russian air force intrusion, nor a Kiev military transport landing supplies.

            Putin was on a plane through this airspace 200 miles (ie 24 minutes) behind MH17, and if you accept my suggestion that whoever launched the missile knew exactly what they were unleashing, then there are only a couple of obvious conclusions, both of which are fairly unpleasant:

            1) This was an attempt to assassinate the leader of the world no.2 nuke weapon power (with more important questions than who launched the missile, like who originated the scheme, and who authorised it).

            2) The Putin proximity was irrelevant, and the intention was to deliberately bring down any passing commercial transport, intending to implicate the other side (a false flag attack). I'd not be so bold as to suggest this proves anything, but the immediate enthusiasm of Western power to blame Russia first and separatists second is notable.

            There is perhaps a third option, the "Vincennes excuse", in which those who launched the missile intended to bring the plane down, but in the red mist they'd ignored the obvious signs that this was a non-combatant, but that's like claiming that murdering the wrong man is only manslaughter, and doesn't wash for me.

            1. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

              Re: Does it really matter who shot it down?

              Whoever fired it and was able to hit a target flying six miles up at nearly 500 miles an hour miles up knew exactly what they were doing with complex anti-aircraft weaponry...

              Or perhaps saw the "target acquired" light come on and simply hit the launch button, whooped with delight until they realised what they had brought about.

              The transcript which puts the blame on the rebels even has them talking of shooting down an enemy plane and I can well believe that's exactly what they thought they'd done and intended to do. A simple repeat of bringing down a Ukrainian transporter as they'd already done earlier.

              There was nothing to be gained by rebels deliberately shooting down a civilian airliner and everything to lose so I cannot believe it was intended if the rebels did bring it down.

              1. Ledswinger Silver badge

                Re: Does it really matter who shot it down?

                "The transcript which puts the blame on the rebels even has them talking of shooting down an enemy plane and I can well believe that's exactly what they thought they'd done and intended to do. "

                It could be true, but I think its a bit odd that military personnel capable of operating advanced defence electronics would be speaking in the open on insecure telephone lines, don't you? The veracity of that transcription has yet to be proven.

                "A simple repeat of bringing down a Ukrainian transporter as they'd already done earlier."

                Very different. The transport was at lower level, and believed to be brought down by a man-portable device incapable of reaching the altitudes at which civilian airlines were operating. A MANPAD involves far less skill (and thus implies less knowledge and awareness of the user), and has far more limited range, so couldn't shoot down MH17.

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