How Is A Composite Commercial Jet Aircraft Built?

Aircraft using composite materials have shaken up the commercial aviation industry. The prime examples of this technology are the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, both of which have been huge successes for their companies. But how are composite aircraft built? How does the process differ from previous aircraft? Let’s find out.

How Is A Composite Commercial Jet Aircraft Built?
Boeing drastically increased the percentage of composites used in the 787s, bringing significant efficiency gains. Photo: Getty Images

What is a composite?

Before digging in, it’s important to understand what a composite material is. While the term composite means a mixture of any two or more materials, in aviation it has come to define a specific mixture. In the case of 787 and A350, it usually involves a fiber-reinforced plastic, such as carbon fiber or kevlar, mixed with plastic resins. This composite is then stacked in several layers and frozen to become a solid foundation.

The biggest gain from using composites is weight reduction. The composite materials have allowed manufacturers to shed thousands of kilograms of excess weight from planes, making them far more aerodynamically efficient. Simply put, the more the use of composites, the more efficient an aircraft can be.

Qatar Airways, Airbus A350, Degrading Paint
The A350 uses the highest percentage of composites of any widebody currently in active use. Photo: Airbus

Composites themselves aren’t a new concept and were used over three decades before the 787. For instance, the 777 featured 12% composite materials, while the A380 used 25% composites. While this achieved some weight savings, aluminum was the single largest component in use for the 777 at 50%, still leaving it heavy by today’s standards.

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Break it down

Commercial composite jets are built like any other plane, built in separate parts around the globe and put together on an assembly line. For the 787, much of the fuselage, wings, sections of the tail, and more are made of composites, comprising 50% of the total weight of the aircraft. This brings about a weight saving of 20% over aluminum, according to Boeing – a significant improvement.

The use of 50% composites in the 787 fuels the aircraft’s dominance among carriers globally and allows it to fly very long-haul missions. Moreover, they are the reason behind the plane’s distinct wing flex during takeoff.

Boeing 787 Composite Use
Photo: Boeing

Airbus may have been second to introduce a majority-composite aircraft, but exceeds Boeing in how much it uses. The A350 is made of 53% carbon fiber composites, making up much of the wings and fuselage.

Making the fibers itself is a delicate and crucial task, one which requires years of development. Once the threads are woven, they are braided together, put onto the aircraft component, and locked in with plastic resin to create the strong material needed to survive thousands of flight cycles.

Airbus Carbon Fiber weaving
Airbus uses a custom carbon fiber weaving and soaking process for its composites. Photo: Airbus

The shape and amount of composite required changes by component and design, with no two parts being the same. Every part we see on the outside is made of millions of composite braids joined together meticulously. Once designed, however, the process is quick, allowing manufacturers to make dozens of planes a month if needed.

Leaps

The coming decades will see new clean-sheet aircraft use even more composites to lighten the weight. As the technology advances, aircraft will become more efficient and environmentally friendly. For now, commercial composite jets have changed the market and will continue to do so for years to come.

What do you think about the use of composites in commercial jets? Let us know in the comments!

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