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Composite Construction (Part Four) – Disadvantages of Composites

by Flight Learnings

in Aircraft Structure

Composite construction comes with its own set of disadvantages, the most important of which is the lack of visual proof of damage. Composites respond differently from other structural materials to impact, and there is often no obvious sign of damage. For example, if a car backs into an aluminum fuselage, it might dent the fuselage. If the fuselage is not dented, there is no damage. If the fuselage is dented, the damage is visible and repairs are made.

In a composite structure, a low energy impact, such as a bump or a tool drop, may not leave any visible sign of the impact on the surface. Underneath the impact site there may be extensive delaminations, spreading in a cone-shaped area from the impact location. The damage on the backside of the structure can be significant and extensive, but it may be hidden from view. Anytime one has reason to think there may have been an impact, even a minor one, it is best to get an inspector familiar with composites to examine the structure to determine underlying damage. The appearance of “whitish” areas in a fiberglass structure is a good tip-off that delaminations of fiber fracture has occurred.

A medium energy impact (perhaps the car backing into the structure) results in local crushing of the surface, which should be visible to the eye. The damaged area is larger than the visible crushed area, and will need to be repaired. A high energy impact, such as a bird strike or hail while in flight, results in a puncture and a severely damaged structure. In medium and high energy impacts, the damage is visible to the eye, but low energy impact is difficult to detect. [Figure 2-16]

Figure 2-16. Impact energy affects the visibility, as well as the severity, of damage in composite structures. High and medium energy impacts, while severe, are easy to detect. Low energy impacts can easily cause hidden damage.

Figure 2-16. Impact energy affects the visibility, as well as the severity, of damage in composite structures. High and medium energy impacts, while severe, are easy to detect. Low energy impacts can easily cause hidden damage.

If an impact results in delaminations, crushing of the surface, or a puncture, then a repair is mandatory. While waiting for the repair, the damaged area should be covered and protected from rain. Many composite parts are composed of thin skins over a honeycomb core, creating a “sandwich” structure. While excellent for structural stiffness reasons, such a structure is an easy target for water ingress (entering), leading to further problems later. A piece of “speed tape” over the puncture is a good way to protect it from water, but is not a structural repair. The use of a paste filler to cover up the damage, while acceptable for cosmetic purposes, is not a structural repair, either.

The potential for heat damage to the resin is another disadvantage of using composites. While “too hot” depends on the particular resin system chosen, many epoxies begin to weaken over 150° F. White paint on composites is often used to minimize this issue. For example, the bottom of a wing that is painted black facing a black asphalt ramp on a hot, sunny day, can get as hot as 220 °F. The same structure, painted white, rarely exceeds 140 °F. As a result, composite airplanes often have specific recommendations on allowable paint colors. If the airplane is repainted, these recommendations must be followed. Heat damage can also occur due to a fire. Even a quickly extinguished small brake fire can damage bottom wing skins, composite landing gear legs, or wheel pants.

Also, chemical paint strippers are very harmful to composites, and must not be used on them. If paint needs to be removed from composites, only mechanical methods are allowed, such as gentle grit blasting or sanding. Many expensive composite parts have been ruined by the use of paint stripper, and such damage is generally not repairable.

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