Fibre composite aircraft - capability and safety


For many decades, fibre composites have been replacing traditional aluminium structures in a wide variety of aircraft types. From the first all-composite kit plane released in 1957, composites are widespread today in commercial aircraft and many other aircraft types. This is due to the cost and weight savings that materials such as glass/phenolic and carbon/epoxy offer aircraft manufacturers over aluminium, while maintaining or surpassing its strength and durability.

This study provides an overview of fibre composite use in aircraft and the issues associated with its use, with a focus on aircraft operating in Australia that contain these materials. There are almost 2,000 aircraft on the Australian civil register made of, or containing, fibre composite materials. This includes most of the mainline jet fleet, effectively all sailplanes and gliders, many popular general aviation aircraft, and a third of the growing amateur-built aircraft category.

There is a lot of conflicting or incorrect information in the aviation community about the safety and capability of fibre composite materials. Composite structures behave very differently under normal loads than equivalent metal structures. Fatigue and corrosion have been proven through trials of composite repair patches to be much less prevalent in composites compared with metals. Subsurface damage such as delamination however can go undetected for long periods and result in sudden catastrophic failure. It is important that operators of fibre composite aircraft be aware of correct detection and repair procedures for the unique types of damage that occur to composites.

First responders involved in post-crash cleanup operations have expressed concerns about the long-term effects from exposure to carbon fibres released from burning composites. Fibre dust can pose an inhalation risk similar to asbestos. Released fibres or splinters are needle-sharp, and can cause skin and eye irritation. In the event of a post-crash fire, smoke and toxic gases are also released from decomposing composites, presenting further health risks.

Type: Research and Analysis Report
Investigation number: AR-2007-021
Publication date: 9 June 2008
Related: Health
Last update 07 April 2014
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