Aircraft Fabric Covering | Aircraft Systems

Aircraft Fabric Covering

History of Fabric Covering

Fabric-covered aircraft play an important role in the history of aviation. The famous Wright Flyer utilized a fabric-covered wood frame in its design, and fabric covering continued to be used by many aircraft designers and builders during the early decades of production aircraft. The use of fabric covering on an aircraft offers one primary advantage: light weight. In contrast, fabric coverings have two disadvantages: flammability and lack of durability.

Finely woven organic fabrics, such as Irish linen and cotton, were the original fabrics used for covering airframes, but their tendency to sag left the aircraft structure exposed to the elements. To counter this problem, builders began coating the fabrics with oils and varnishes. In 1916, a mixture of cellulose dissolved in nitric acid, called nitrate dope, came into use as an aircraft fabric coating. Nitrate dope protected the fabric, adhered to it well, and tautened it over the airframe. It also gave the fabric a smooth, durable finish when dried. The major drawback to nitrate dope was its extreme flammability.

To address the flammability issue, aircraft designers tried a preparation of cellulose dissolved in butyric acid called butyrate dope. This mixture protected the fabric from dirt and moisture, but it did not adhere as well to the fabric as nitrate dope. Eventually, a system combining the two dope coatings was developed. First, the fabric was coated with nitrate dope for its adhesion and protective qualities. Then, subsequent coats of butyrate dope were added. Since the butyrate dope coatings reduced the overall flammability of the fabric covering, this system became the standard fabric treatment system.

The second problem, lack of durability, stems from the eventual deterioration of fabric from exposure to the elements that results in a limited service life. Although the mixture of nitrate dope and butyrate dope kept out dirt and water, solving some of the degradation issue, it did not address deterioration caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Ultraviolet radiation passed through the dope and degraded not only the fabric, but also the aircraft structure underneath. Attempts to paint the coated fabric proved unsuccessful, because paint does not adhere well to nitrate dope. Eventually, aluminum solids were added to the butyrate coatings. This mixture reflected the sun’s rays, prevented harmful UV rays from penetrating the dope, and protected the fabric, as well as the aircraft structure.

Regardless of treatments, organic fabrics have a limited lifespan; cotton or linen covering on an actively flown aircraft lasts only about 5–10 years. Furthermore, aircraft cotton has not been available for over 25 years. As the aviation industry developed more powerful engines and more aerodynamic aircraft structures, aluminum became the material of choice. Its use in engines, aircraft frames, and coverings revolutionized aviation. As a covering, aluminum protected the aircraft structure from the elements, was durable, and was not flammable.

Although aluminum and composite aircraft dominate modern aviation, advances in fabric coverings continue to be made because gliders, home-built, and light sport aircraft, as well as some standard and utility certificated aircraft, are still produced with fabric coverings. [Figure 1] The nitrate/butyrate dope process works well, but does not mitigate the short lifespan of organic fabrics. It was not until the introduction of polyester fabric as an aircraft covering in the 1950s that the problem of the limited lifespan of fabric covering was solved. The transition to polyester fabric had some problems because the nitrate and butyrate dope coating process is not as suitable for polyester as it is for organic fabrics. Upon initial application of the dopes to polyester, good adhesion and protection occurred; as the dopes dried, they would eventually separate from the fabric. In other words, the fabric outlasted the coating.

Figure 1. Examples of aircraft produced using fabric skin

Eventually, dope additives were developed that minimized the separation problem. For example, plasticizers keep the dried dope flexible and nontautening dope formulas eliminate separation of the coatings from the fabric. Properly protected and coated, polyester lasts indefinitely and is stronger than cotton or linen. Today, polyester fabric coverings are the standard and use of cotton and linen on United States certificated aircraft has ceased. In fact, the long staple cotton from which grade-A cotton aircraft fabric is made is no longer produced in this country.

Re-covering existing fabric aircraft is an accepted maintenance procedure. Not all aircraft covering systems include the use of dope coating processes. Modern aircraft covering systems that include the use of nondope fabric treatments show no signs of deterioration even after decades of service.

Fabric Terms

To facilitate the discussion of fabric coverings for aircraft, the following definitions are presented. Figure 2 illustrates some of these items.

Figure 2. Aircraft fabric nomenclature

  • Warp—the direction along the length of fabric.
  • Fill or weave—the direction across the width of the fabric.
  • Count—the number of threads per inch in warp or filling.
  • Ply—the number of yarns making up a thread.
  • Bias—a cut, fold, or seam made diagonally to the warp or fill threads.
  • Pinked edge—an edge which has been cut by machine or special pinking shears in a continuous series of Vs to prevent raveling.
  • Selvage edge—the edge of cloth, tape, or webbing woven to prevent raveling.
  • Greige—condition of polyester fabric upon completion of the production process before being heat shrunk.
  • Cross coat—brushing or spraying where the second coat is applied 90° to the direction the first coat was applied. The two coats together make a single cross coat. [Figure 3]

Figure 3. A single cross coat is made up of two coats of paint applied 90° to each other

Legal Aspects of Fabric Covering

When a fabric-covered aircraft is certificated, the aircraft manufacturer uses materials and techniques to cover the aircraft that are approved under the type certificate issued for that aircraft. The same materials and techniques must be used by maintenance personnel when replacing the aircraft fabric. Descriptions of these materials and techniques are in the manufacturer’s service manual. For example, aircraft originally manufactured with cotton fabric can only be re-covered with cotton fabric unless the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves an exception. Approved exceptions for alternate fabric-covering materials and procedures are common. Since polyester fabric coverings deliver performance advantages, such as lighter weight, longer life, additional strength, and lower cost, many older aircraft originally manufactured with cotton fabric have received approved alteration authority and have been recovered with polyester fabric.

There are three ways to gain FAA approval to re-cover an aircraft with materials and processes other than those with which it was originally certificated. One is to do the work in accordance with an approved supplemental type certificate (STC). The STC must specify that it is for the particular aircraft model in question. It states in detail exactly what alternate materials must be used and what procedure(s) must be followed. Deviation from the STC data in any way renders the aircraft unairworthy. The holder of the STC typically sells the materials and the use of the STC to the person wishing to re-cover the aircraft.

The second way to gain approval to re-cover an aircraft with different materials and processes is with a field approval. A field approval is a one-time approval issued by the FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) permitting the materials and procedures requested to replace those of the original manufacturer. A field approval request is made on FAA Form 337. A thorough description of the materials and processes must be submitted with proof that, when the alteration is completed, the aircraft meets or exceeds the performance parameters set forth by the original type certificate.

The third way is for a manufacturer to secure approval through the Type Certificate Data Sheet (TCDS) for a new process. For example, Piper Aircraft Co. originally covered their PA-18s in cotton. Later, they secured approval to recover their aircraft with Dacon fabric. Recovering an older PA-18 with Dacron in accordance with the TCDS would be a major repair, but not an alteration as the TCDS holder has current approval for the fabric.

Advisory Circular (AC) 43.13.1, Acceptable Methods, Techniques, and Practices—Aircraft Inspection and Repair, contains acceptable practices for covering aircraft with fabric. It is a valuable source of general and specific information on fabric and fabric repair that can be used on Form 337 to justify procedures requested for a field approval. Submitting an FAA Form 337 does not guarantee a requested field approval. The FSDO inspector considers all aspects of the procedures and their effect(s) on the aircraft for which the request is being filed. Additional data may be required for approval.

Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 43, Appendix A, states which maintenance actions are considered major repairs and which actions are considered major alterations. Fabric re-covering is considered a major repair and FAA Form 337 is executed whenever an aircraft is re-covered with fabric. Appendix A also states that changing parts of an aircraft wing, tail surface, or fuselage when not listed in the aircraft specifications issued by the FAA is a major alteration. This means that replacing cotton fabric with polyester fabric is a major alteration. A properly executed FAA Form 337 also needs to be approved in order for this alteration to be legal.

FAA Form 337, which satisfies the documentation requirements for major fabric repairs and alterations, requires participation of an FAA-certificated Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) mechanic with an Inspection Authorization (IA) in the re-covering process. Often the work involved in re-covering a fabric aircraft is performed by someone else, but under the supervision of the IA (IA certification requires A&P certification). This typically means the IA inspects the aircraft structure and the re-cover job at various stages to be sure STC or field approval specifications are being followed. The signatures of the IA and the FSDO inspector are required on the approved FAA Form 337. The aircraft logbook also must be signed by the FAA-certificated A&P mechanic. It is important to contact the local FSDO before making any major repair or alteration.

Approved Materials

Available Covering Processes

Determining Fabric Condition-Repair or Recover?

Fabric Strength

Polyester Fabric Repairs

General Fabric Covering Process

Cotton-Covered Aircraft and Fiberglass Coverings