The effect of additional weight on the wing structure of an aircraft is not readily apparent. Airworthiness requirements prescribe that the structure of an aircraft certificated in the normal category (in which acrobatics are prohibited) must be strong enough to withstand a load factor of 3.8 Gs to take care of dynamic loads caused by maneuvering and gusts. This means that the primary structure of the aircraft can withstand a load of 3.8 times the approved gross weight of the aircraft without structural failure occurring. If this is accepted as indicative of the load factors that may be imposed during operations for which the aircraft is intended, a 100-pound overload imposes a potential structural overload of 380 pounds. The same consideration is even more impressive in the case of utility and acrobatic category aircraft, which have load factor requirements of 4.4 and 6.0, respectively.
Structural failures which result from overloading may be dramatic and catastrophic, but more often they affect structural components progressively in a manner that is difficult to detect and expensive to repair. Habitual overloading tends to cause cumulative stress and damage that may not be detected during preflight inspections and result in structural failure later during completely normal operations. The additional stress placed on structural parts by overloading is believed to accelerate the occurrence of metallic fatigue failures.
Knowledge of load factors imposed by flight maneuvers and gusts emphasizes the consequences of an increase in the gross weight of an aircraft. The structure of an aircraft about to undergo a load factor of 3 Gs, as in recovery from a steep dive, must be prepared to withstand an added load of 300 pounds for each 100-pound increase in weight. It should be noted that this would be imposed by the addition of about 16 gallons of unneeded fuel in a particular aircraft. FAA-certificated civil aircraft have been analyzed structurally and tested for flight at the maximum gross weight authorized and within the speeds posted for the type of flights to be performed. Flights at weights in excess of this amount are quite possible and often are well within the performance capabilities of an aircraft. This fact should not mislead the pilot, as the pilot may not realize that loads for which the aircraft was not designed are being imposed on all or some part of the structure.
In loading an aircraft with either passengers or cargo, the structure must be considered. Seats, baggage compartments, and cabin floors are designed for a certain load or concentration of load and no more. For example, a light plane baggage compartment may be placarded for 20 pounds because of the limited strength of its supporting structure even though the aircraft may not be overloaded or out of CG limits with more weight at that location.