Composite construction offers several advantages over metal, wood, or fabric, with its lighter weight being the most frequently cited. Lighter weight is not always automatic. It must be remembered that building an aircraft structure out of composites does not guarantee it will be lighter, it depends on the structure, as well as the type of composite being used.
A more important advantage is that a very smooth, compound curved, aerodynamic structure made from composites reduces drag. This is the main reason sailplane designers switched from metal and wood to composites in the 1960s. In aircraft, the use of composites reduces drag for the Cirrus and Columbia line of production aircraft, leading to their high performance despite their fixed landing gear. Composites also help mask the radar signature of “stealth” aircraft designs, such as the B-2 and the F-22. Today, composites can be found in aircraft as varied as gliders to most new helicopters.
Lack of corrosion is a third advantage of composites. Boeing is designing the 787, with its all-composite fuselage, to have both a higher pressure differential and higher humidity in the cabin than previous airliners. Engineers are no longer as concerned about corrosion from moisture condensation on the hidden areas of the fuselage skins, such as behind insulation blankets. This should lead to lower long-term maintenance costs for the airlines.
Another advantage of composites is their good performance in a flexing environment, such as in helicopter rotor blades. Composites do not suffer from metal fatigue and crack growth as do metals. While it takes careful engineering, composite rotor blades can have considerably higher design lives than metal blades, and most new large helicopter designs have all composite blades, and in many cases, composite rotor hubs.