Repairability of Aircraft Sheet Metal Structure | Aircraft Systems

Repairability of Aircraft Sheet Metal Structure

The following criteria can be used to help an aircraft technician decide upon the repairability of a sheet metal structure:
  • Type of damage.
  • Type of original material.
  • Location of the damage.
  • Type of repair required.
  • Tools and equipment available to make the repair.

The following methods, procedures, and materials are only typical and should not be used as the authority for a repair.

Structural Support During Repair

During repair, the aircraft must be adequately supported to prevent further distortion or damage. It is also important that the structure adjacent to the repair is supported when it is subject to static loads. The aircraft structure can be supported adequately by the landing gear or by jacks where the work involves a repair, such as removing the control surfaces, wing panels, or stabilizers. Cradles must be prepared to hold these components while they are removed from the aircraft.

When the work involves extensive repair of the fuselage, landing gear, or wing center section, a jig (a device for holding parts in position to maintain their shape) may be constructed to distribute the loads while repairs are being accomplished. Figure 1 shows a typical aircraft jig. Always check the applicable aircraft maintenance manual for specific support requirements.

Figure 1. Aircraft jig used to hold components during repairs

Assessment of Damage

Before starting any repair, the extent of damage must be fully evaluated to determine if repair is authorized or even practical. This evaluation should identify the original material used and the type of repair required. The assessment of the damage begins with an inspection of riveted joints and an inspection for corrosion.

Inspection of Riveted Joints

Inspection consists of examining both the shop and manufactured heads and the surrounding skin and structural parts for deformities.

During the repair of an aircraft structural part, examine adjacent parts to determine the condition of neighboring rivets. The presence of chipped or cracked paint around the heads may indicate shifted or loose rivets. If the heads are tipped or if rivets are loose, they show up in groups of several consecutive rivets and are probably tipped in the same direction. If heads that appear to be tipped are not in groups and are not tipped in the same direction, tipping may have occurred during some previous installation.

Inspect rivets that are known to have been critically loaded, but that show no visible distortion, by drilling off the head and carefully punching out the shank. If upon examination, the shank appears joggled and the holes in the sheet misaligned, the rivet has failed in shear. In that case, determine what is causing the stress and take necessary corrective action. Countersunk rivets that show head slippage within the countersink or dimple, indicating either sheet bearing failure or rivet shear failure, must be replaced.

Joggles in removed rivet shanks indicate partial shear failure. Replace these rivets with the next larger size. Also, if the rivet holes show elongation, replace the rivets with the next larger size. Sheet failures, such as tearouts, cracks between rivets, and the like, usually indicate damaged rivets, and the complete repair of the joint may require replacement of the rivets with the next larger size.

The presence of a black residue around the rivets is not an indication of looseness, but it is an indication of movement (fretting). The residue, which is aluminum oxide, is formed by a small amount of relative motion between the rivet and the adjacent surface. This is called fretting corrosion, or smoking, because the aluminum dust quickly forms a dark, dirty looking trail, like a smoke trail. Sometimes, the thinning of the moving pieces can propagate a crack. If a rivet is suspected of being defective, this residue may be removed with a general purpose abrasive hand pad, such as those manufactured by Scotch Brite™, and the surface inspected for signs of pitting or cracking. Although the condition indicates the component is under significant stress, it does not necessarily precipitate cracking. [Figure 2]

Figure 2. Smoking rivet.

Airframe cracking is not necessarily caused by defective rivets. It is common practice in the industry to size rivet patterns assuming one or more of the rivets is not effective. This means that a loose rivet would not necessarily overload adjacent rivets to the point of cracking.

Rivet head cracking are acceptable under the following conditions:
  • The depth of the crack is less than 1⁄8 of the shank diameter.
  • The width of the crack is less than 1⁄16 of the shank diameter.
  • The length of the crack is confined to an area on the head within a circle having a maximum diameter of 11⁄4 times the shank diameter.
  • Cracks should not intersect, which creates the potential for the loss of a portion of a head.

Inspection for Corrosion

Corrosion is the gradual deterioration of metal due to a chemical or electrochemical reaction with its environment. The reaction can be triggered by the atmosphere, moisture, or other agents. When inspecting the structure of an aircraft, it is important to watch for evidence of corrosion on both the outside and inside. Corrosion on the inside is most likely to occur in pockets and corners where moisture and salt spray may accumulate; therefore, drain holes must always be kept clean. Also inspect the surrounding members for evidence of corrosion.

Damage Removal

To prepare a damaged area for repair:
  • Remove all distorted skin and structure in damaged area.
  • Remove damaged material so that the edges of the completed repair match existing structure and aircraft lines.
  • Round all square corners.
  • Smooth out any abrasions and/or dents.
  • Remove and incorporate into the new repair any previous repairs joining the area of the new repair.

Repair Material Selection 

The repair material must duplicate the strength of the original structure. If an alloy weaker than the original material has to be used, a heavier gauge must be used to give equivalent cross-sectional strength. A lighter gauge material should not be used even when using a stronger alloy.

Repair Parts Layout

All new sections fabricated for repairing or replacing damaged parts in a given aircraft should be carefully laid out to the dimensions listed in the applicable aircraft manual before fitting the parts into the structure.

Rivet Selection

Normally, the rivet size and material should be the same as the original rivets in the part being repaired. If a rivet hole has been enlarged or deformed, the next larger size rivet must be used after reworking the hole. When this is done, the proper edge distance for the larger rivet must be maintained. Where access to the inside of the structure is impossible and blind rivets must be used in making the repair, always consult the applicable aircraft maintenance manual for the recommended type, size, spacing, and number of rivets needed to replace either the original installed rivets or those that are required for the type of repair being performed.

Rivet Spacing and Edge Distance

The rivet pattern for a repair must conform to instructions in the applicable aircraft manual. The existing rivet pattern is used whenever possible.

Corrosion Treatment

Prior to assembly of repair or replacement parts, make certain that all existing corrosion has been removed in the area and that the parts are properly insulated one from the other.

Repair of Stressed Skin Structure

In aircraft construction, stressed skin is a form of construction in which the external covering (skin) of an aircraft carries part or all of the main loads. Stressed skin is made from high strength rolled aluminum sheets. Stressed skin carries a large portion of the load imposed upon an aircraft structure. Various specific skin areas are classified as highly critical, semicritical, or noncritical. To determine specific repair requirements for these areas, refer to the applicable aircraft maintenance manual.

Minor damage to the outside skin of the aircraft can be repaired by applying a patch to the inside of the damaged sheet. A filler plug must be installed in the hole made by the removal of the damaged skin area. It plugs the hole and forms a smooth outside surface necessary for aerodynamic smoothness of the aircraft. The size and shape of the patch is determined in general by the number of rivets required in the repair. If not otherwise specified, calculate the required number of rivets by using the rivet formula. Make the patch plate of the same material as the original skin and of the same thickness or of the next greater thickness.


Skin patches may be classified as two types:
  • Lap or scab patch
  • Flush patch

Lap or Scab Patch

The lap or scab type of patch is an external patch where the edges of the patch and the skin overlap each other. The overlapping portion of the patch is riveted to the skin. Lap patches may be used in most areas where aerodynamic smoothness is not important. Figure 3 shows a typical patch for a crack and or for a hole.

Figure 3. Lap or scab patch (crack)

When repairing cracks or small holes with a lap or scab patch, the damage must be cleaned and smoothed. In repairing cracks, a small hole must be drilled in each end and sharp bend of the crack before applying the patch. These holes relieve the stress at these points and prevent the crack from spreading. The patch must be large enough to install the required number of rivets. It may be cut circular, square, or rectangular. If it is cut square or rectangular, the corners are rounded to a radius no smaller than 1⁄4-inch. The edges must be chamfered to an angle of 45° for 1⁄2 the thickness of the material, and bent down 5° over the edge distance to seal the edges. This reduces the chance that the repair is affected by the airflow over it. These dimensions are shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Lap patch edge preparation

Flush Patch

A flush patch is a filler patch that is flush to the skin when applied it is supported by and riveted to a reinforcement plate which is, in turn, riveted to the inside of the skin. Figure 5 shows a typical flush patch repair. The doubler is inserted through the opening and rotated until it slides in place under the skin. The filler must be of the same gauge and material as the original skin. The doubler should be of material one gauge heavier than the skin.

Figure 5. Typical flush patch repair

Open and Closed Skin Area Repair

The factors that determine the methods to be used in skin repair are accessibility to the damaged area and the instructions found in the aircraft maintenance manual. The skin on most areas of an aircraft is inaccessible for making the repair from the inside and is known as closed skin. Skin that is accessible from both sides is called open skin. Usually, repairs to open skin can be made in the conventional manner using standard rivets, but in repairing closed skin, some type of special fastener must be used. The exact type to be used depends on the type of repair being made and the recommendations of the aircraft manufacturer.

Design of a Patch for a Nonpressurized Area

Damage to the aircraft skin in a non-pressurized area can be repaired by a flush patch if a smooth skin surface is required or by an external patch in noncritical areas. [Figure 6] The first step is to remove the damage. Cut the damage to a round, oval, or rectangular shape. Round all corners of a rectangular patch to a minimum radius of 0.5-inch. The minimum edge distance used is 2 times the diameter and the rivet spacing is typically between 4-6 times the diameter. The size of the doubler depends on the edge distance and rivet spacing. The doubler material is of the same material as the damaged skin, but of one thickness greater than the damaged skin. The size of the doubler depends on the edge distance and rivet spacing. The insert is made of the same material and thickness as the damaged skin. The size and type of rivets should be the same as rivets used for similar joints on the aircraft. The SRM indicates what size and type of rivets to use.

Figure 6. Repair patch for a non-pressurized area

Basic Principles of Sheet Metal Repair
Approval of Repair
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