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.

Aircraft sheet metal structure repair
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]

Aircraft sheet metal structure repair
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:
  1. Remove all distorted skin and structure in damaged area.
  2. Remove damaged material so that the edges of the completed repair match existing structure and aircraft lines.
  3. Round all square corners.
  4. Smooth out any abrasions and/or dents.
  5. 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.

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