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In aerodynamics, load factor is the ratio of the maximum load an aircraft can sustain to the gross weight of the aircraft. The load factor is measured in Gs (acceleration of gravity), a unit of force equal to the force exerted by gravity on a body at rest and indicates the force to which a body is subjected when it is accelerated. Any force applied to an aircraft to deflect its flight from a straight line produces a stress on its structure, and the amount of this force is the load factor. While a course in aerodynamics is not a prerequisite for obtaining a pilot’s license, the competent pilot should have a solid understanding of the forces that act on the aircraft, the advantageous use of these forces, and the operating limitations of the aircraft being flown.

For example, a load factor of 3 means the total load on an aircraft’s structure is three times its gross weight. Since load factors are expressed in terms of Gs, a load factor of 3 may be spoken of as 3 Gs, or a load factor of 4 as 4 Gs.
If an aircraft is pulled up from a dive, subjecting the pilot to 3 Gs, he or she would be pressed down into the seat with a force equal to three times his or her weight. Since modern aircraft operate at significantly higher speeds than older aircraft, increasing the magnitude of the load factor, this effect has become a primary consideration in the design of the structure of all aircraft.

With the structural design of aircraft planned to withstand only a certain amount of overload, a knowledge of load factors has become essential for all pilots. Load factors are important for two reasons:

1. It is possible for a pilot to impose a dangerous overload on the aircraft structures.
2. An increased load factor increases the stalling speed and makes stalls possible at seemingly safe flight speeds.

Learn more about airplane aerodynamics with the Illustrated Guide to Aerodynamics. This unique introductory guide, which sold more than 20,000 copies in its first edition, proves that the principles of flight can be easy to understand, even fascinating, to pilots and technicians who want to know how and why an aircraft behaves as it does.

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