Composite materials are playing an increasingly important role in the manufacturing of modern airliners. These light compounds are advantageous when it comes to saving weight, and thus improving the aircraft’s efficiency. But which models make use of them?
What are composite materials?
Let’s begin by establishing what exactly makes something a composite material. Simply put, the term refers to newly formed materials that are created by synthesizing two existing materials. The advantage of this is that it can enable the new compound to take on properties that the individual materials would not otherwise display on their own.
The structures of the materials in question are not mixed, but rather combined to reinforce one another while remaining two separate entities. For example, as Simple Flying explored in October, aircraft composites consist of layered combinations of carbon fiber or kevlar and plastic resin. Such materials have been used in aircraft manufacturing for years.
Indeed, models that are now considered relatively old, such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380, used composite materials on a small scale. More recently, Irkut has developed composite wings for its MC-21. However, certain jets see a much wider usage of composites.
The primary advantage of composite materials is the weight that they save compared to traditional structures. When used widely in the context of an entire aircraft, this can make a big difference to its weight, and therefore its efficiency levels and operating costs.
The first airliner to benefit from having an airframe that consisted primarily of composite materials was the Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ family. These structures helped it achieve a 20% increase in fuel efficiency compared to its predecessor, the Boeing 767 series.
Of course, there were safety implications that had to be considered regarding the 787’s fuselage design. Fears of toxic fumes in the event of a fire due to a crash landing became a concern, although the structure was ultimately found to be no more toxic than typical airframes. The crashworthiness of the 787’s composite fuselage also offers the same survival chances as a metal structure. Boeing has produced over 1,000 787s to date.
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Having been designed to compete with the Boeing 787, it is no surprise to see that the Airbus A350 also makes extensive use of composite materials. The initial design was essentially a re-engined A330, and only featured such structures in the wings. However, a lack of interest prompted Airbus to redesign the A350 as a clean-sheet widebody aircraft,
Airbus confirmed the use of a composite fuselage in 2007, despite having reportedly previously described Boeing’s use of such materials on the 787 as premature. According to Pilot Mall, almost half the aircraft features such materials, which come in the form of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). The airframe also features non-composite aluminum strips. These are a preventative measure to ensure continuity in the event of a lightning strike.
Did you know that certain airliners used composite materials? Have you ever flown on such a plane? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.