Aviation Lawyer Keith Williams Discusses the Dangers of Load Shift and Lets You In On An Alarming Fact About Commercial Planes


When cargo planes crash, it can usually be traced to weather or pilot error, or sometimes mechanical failure. However, there is one culprit that is a constant danger to cargo planes and their ability to fly safely and that is “load shift”.  In a cargo plane, the load has to be perfectly balanced to as not to throw the pitch or balance off on the plane.  Once loaded, it has to be secure so it doesn’t shift in flight, causing a catastrophic crash like the one that happened recently.  In this instance, a Boeing jet was taking off from Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan when it crashed immediately after take off and all 7 people aboard were killed.  Witnesses say the jet took off into a steep climb, seemed to lose power, rolled to one side and then crashed into the ground.  The Air Base acknowledges that planes to attain high altitudes more quickly from the air base to evade possible attack by RPGs packing rebels in the area.  However, insiders say it could well have been that the load shifted immediately after take off and that could have caused the crash.

People in the cargo business say there is a very specific way to load a cargo plane and there is little room for error.  The load master is in charge of measuring and weighing the load. He checks it against the manifest to ensure that the plane doesn’t exceed it weight capacity (the plane that crashed in Afghanistan had a capacity of about 125 tons).  The pilot of the plane is given all the data regarding his payload prior to take off.

However, once the plane has left the runway, there is little the pilot can do if the load shifts.  In 1997, boxes of denim broke free in the hold of a DC-8 and caused the plane to nose-dive immediately after its take off in Miami.  It skidded through busy Miami streets, killing one pedestrian and several crew members.  While many regulations are in place, safety groups say oversight is lax.

If you’re wondering how crews figure out how to balance luggage in a commercial airliner, the short answer is “they don’t”.  They load the luggage onto portable racks, lock them in the hold and that’s it.  Smaller jets and personal aircraft, ones that have a lighter weight limit, are stricter on what and how much they carry; even requiring people disclose how much the weigh.

Right now, all we can do is offer our condolences to the families of those lost in the recent crash while we wait for the final report on the crash to be completed and released.  It will be interesting to see if the industry insider’s hunch is correct and a load shift caused the latest cargo plane disaster.