I was twenty-years old and had my commercial pilot’s license for less than twenty-four hours when I got my first paying job as a pilot taking passengers up for rides at a local airshow. I had started taking flying lessons at the age of fourteen after my father bought me a ride one hot summer day. I was sure I wanted to be a commercial pilot from that day on despite getting airsick. I worked at the airport washing airplanes and pumping fuel to earn money for flying lessons. I babysat four children at a time who never went to bed and shoveled all the neighbor’s driveways back when snowfall in New Hampshire was serious business. Now, six years later, I would take up my first paying passengers.

I didn’t look like most of the pilots I knew. Besides the fact that fewer than 4% of commercial pilots in 1983 were women, I also looked young for my age. I had no fancy uniform that identified me as a pilot. I was petite enough that I used a blue boat cushion to boost myself up high enough in the seat of the Cessna to see over the nose for landing. It occurred to me that some parents might balk at buying a ride for their kids when they saw I was their pilot.

On my checkride the day before, I had to calculate how various combinations of fuel, passengers, and baggage could be loaded into several different airplanes. Every airplane has a maximum weight limit, as well as restrictions on how the weight can be distributed in the airplane, known as weight and balance limitations. Too much weight in the back makes the airplane too tail heavy and too much in the front makes it too nose heavy. Then I flew two airplanes while someone from the Federal Aviation Administration observed my every move. The entire checkride had taken most of the day, but now I could get paid to fly. I was paid twenty-five dollars for the day. I would have done it for free.

The airplane I was flying was one of the most popular airplanes ever built. It was a Cessna Skyhawk, also known as a Cessna-172, and it had two seats in the back and two in the front for a total of three passengers and the pilot. In this airplane I knew that with the fuel tanks nearly full of fuel it could easily become too tail heavy if two big adults were in the back. This could make it climb too steeply, make it more challenging to fly at a constant altitude, and difficult to lower the nose. This was especially a concern for me since I only weighed about one-hundred-ten pounds (boat cushion included), and so my weight in the pilot’s seat would not balance out any weight in the back. A severely overloaded or unbalanced airplane might not fly at all.

I had flown with passengers in the back before, but I had never been faced with the problem of having to quickly estimate my passenger’s weights. I wasn’t about to ask each person how much they weighed. I knew that any number they might provide would likely be more aspirational than accurate. I figured that I could at least put the heaviest passenger in the front seat to reduce the weight in the back.

It’s not like this was an uncommon issue for pilots. I had a friend who flew jet charter flights and who once had to tell former President George H.W. Bush that he needed to leave behind one of his trusted aides because of weight limits. Fortunately for my friend, Bush was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a pilot during World War II and understood the problem. He was gracious about it and left his supposedly least important aide to find another means of travel. For me, this problem was mostly theoretical until that day at the airshow.

Unfortunately, my plan to strategically seat the passengers was thwarted when I was initially prevented from getting to my airplane by some overzealous volunteer security staff who didn’t believe that I was a pilot—even when I showed them my pilot certificate. To be fair, in those days when a pilot received a new certificate it was just a flimsy carbon copy of a form typed out by the person doing the checkride. The official certificate, a plastic card with a picture of Orville and Wilbur Wright, took several weeks to arrive in the mail from the Federal Aviation Administration headquarters in Oklahoma City. It must have looked like I had made a bad forgery of a pilot certificate.

By the time I found some male pilot friends to vouch for me so that I could get past security, the airport manager’s wife had already started boarding a group of three passengers into the Skyhawk. Since she was not a pilot herself, she had not been concerned with where the passengers sat. The trio consisted of two older women who looked to weigh around 200 pounds each and a thinner gentleman with a guide cane for the visually impaired. I mentally calculated that our weight would be near the maximum limit but not over it, but to my dismay the two women were already buckled into the back seats.

My only consolation was that given the circumstances I figured I could convince one of the ladies to sit in front where they would have the best view. Yet when I leaned in to ask one of them to switch seats, both ladies explained in unison, “Oh, no. George always rides in the front seat next to the pilot when we go flying.” Really, I thought, as I tried not to look too obvious as I eyed the cane George was using to make his way into the airplane. Clearly this was not about the view.

I tried again with a new tactic. “Well, there will be more room for the cane in the back, and we wouldn’t want it to interfere with the rudder pedals,” I explained, hoping to appear safety conscious. I was a professional after all.

“George knows not to let his cane get in the way,” one of the ladies explained; “We do this every year, and he always sits in front.”

George now chimed in, too, as he hoisted himself into the front seat and showed me how he could carefully stow his cane clear of the pedals. “I love being up front where all the action is,” he said gleefully. Indeed.

Now this is where, as a professional, I should have explained the situation and asked for their help. I could have appealed to their experience as frequent fliers to get their cooperation in helping me solve the weight issue. I had no reason to think that anyone would have been upset; yet still, I didn’t speak up.

The accident data has consistently shown that exceeding weight and balance limitations causes accidents. During one recent eight-year period from 2008-2016, there were 136 accidents involving smaller general aviation airplanes where the cause was overloading the airplane or loading it out of balance. One-third of those accidents were fatal. Despite what I had learned during pilot training and demonstrated the day before, why couldn’t I be like my friend and tell this George, who was not a former PODUS, that he needed to switch seats? There was no excuse for my behavior, but I think that my self-imposed pressure to be accepted as a commercial pilot allowed me to rationalize my poor decision.

As I taxied out, I pondered what the story of the crash would look like on the front page of the local newspaper. I imagined a headline something like this: Female pilot kills three passengers one day after obtaining her commercial pilot’s certificate. I thought about how this would now become fodder for those who didn’t think women should be flying airplanes. What I didn’t do was change my mind. Instead, I prepared myself for flying a heavily loaded, tail-heavy airplane.

I adjusted something called a trim wheel all the way forward so that the flight controls would feel more like an airplane that was not so tail heavy. This would help prevent the nose from prematurely lifting off the ground as we gained speed on takeoff. I used the longest runway so there was plenty of room to achieve liftoff despite our weight, and I reminded myself the airplane would be harder to fly smoothly with all the weight in the back. I decided that I would make a shallow climb after takeoff, and that on our return I would land without full flaps. I used all my aeronautical knowledge to adjust for my dumb decision to take off in the first place.

Despite taking these precautions, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. As we accelerated slowly and I ever so gently applied back pressure to the yoke, we leaped off the runway like a gazelle beginning a chase. Holding the control yoke forward, my biceps got so shaky from the exertion that I had to lock my elbow against my body for added leverage. Rivulets of sweat ran down my face, and I was relieved that my visually impaired passenger in the front couldn’t see me struggling. He and his friends in the back were happily commenting on how much fun it was to be flying again when all I could think of was how much I wanted to be back on the ground. I immediately regretted my gutless decision as I made a shallow turn back toward the airport for landing. My only salvation was that my boss had told me to keep these flights as short as possible.

As I circled to set up for my landing, I pondered how I was going to keep the tail from hitting the runway on our landing flare. I didn’t want to attract the attention of hundreds of airshow attendees with a loud bang and the sound of metal scraping the asphalt. As we floated over the runway, I left some power on instead of pulling the throttle back to idle. It prolonged the strain on my arm, but it lessened the chance of a hard landing. Just as I anticipated, as soon as I pulled back the throttle and released my elbow from where it was wedged into my ribs, the nose popped up and the wheels squeaked onto the runway. Somehow, I had managed to not scrape the tail. As I taxied in, relieved to be on the ground, the last thing I wanted to do was to pick up some more passengers. I felt like my commercial pilot’s certificate deserved to be shredded.

As it was, there was a line of people waiting for me to take them for a ride. My first paying passengers were blissfully unaware of my lack of judgment. Although no one could have perceived a difference between the pilot that took off moments before, and the one that just landed, I knew I was not the same pilot. I now understood that a piece of paper that said I was a commercial pilot had nothing to do with being a professional.

A year later, I was asked to take people up for rides at the airshow again. As I stood by the airplane looking at the line of people ready to go up for a ride, some familiar faces caught my attention. It was George and his two companions. They recognized me too and were excited to go up for another ride. This time would be different. I was prepared to ask them to sit where I needed them to be to meet the weight and balance limitations and I had made sure that the airplane was not full of fuel. This year I would not just be a professional pilot. I would act like one.


Shirley M. Phillips has worked for two different airlines and has flown seaplanes, gliders, and the Airbus A320. She was a professor of aeronautical science and has a MA in science writing from Johns Hopkins University. She recently completed a memoir about her flying experiences.