Corrosion of Aircraft Metals, Alloys and Treatment

Corrosion of Ferrous Metals

One of the most familiar types of corrosion is ferrous oxide (rust), generally resulting from atmospheric oxidation of steel surfaces. Some metal oxides protect the underlying base metal, but rust is not a protective coating in any sense of the word. Its presence actually promotes additional attack by attracting moisture from the air and acting as a catalyst for additional corrosion. If complete control of the corrosive attack is to be realized, all rust must be removed from steel surfaces.

Rust first appears on bolt heads, hold-down nuts, or other unprotected aircraft hardware. [Figure 1]

Corrosion of Aircraft Metals, Alloys and Treatment
Figure 1. Rust

Its presence in these areas is generally not dangerous and has no immediate effect on the structural strength of any major components. The residue from the rust may also contaminate other ferrous components, promoting corrosion of those parts.

The rust is indicative of a need for maintenance and of possible corrosive attack in more critical areas. It is also a factor in the general appearance of the equipment. When paint failures occur or mechanical damage exposes highly-stressed steel surfaces to the atmosphere, even the smallest amount of rusting is potentially dangerous in these areas and must be removed and controlled. Rust removal from structural components, followed by an inspection and damage assessment, must be done as soon as feasible. [Figure 2]

Corrosion of Aircraft Metals, Alloys and Treatment
Figure 2. Rust on structural components

Mechanical Removal of Iron Rust

The most practicable means of controlling the corrosion of steel is the complete removal of corrosion products by mechanical means and restoring corrosion preventive coatings. Except on highly-stressed steel surfaces, the use of abrasive papers and compounds, small power buffers and buffing compounds, hand wire brushing, or steel wool are all acceptable cleanup procedures. However, it should be recognized that in any such use of abrasives, residual rust usually remains in the bottom of small pits and other crevices. It is practically impossible to remove all corrosion products by abrasive or polishing methods alone. As a result, once a part cleaned in such a manner has rusted, it usually corrodes again more easily than it did the first time.

The introduction of variations of the nonwoven abrasive pad has also increased the options available for the removal of surface rust. [Figure 3] Flap wheels, pads intended for use with rotary or oscillating power tools, and hand-held nonwoven abrasive pads all can be used alone or with light oils to remove corrosion from ferrous components.

Corrosion of Aircraft Metals, Alloys and Treatment
Figure 3. Nonwoven abrasive pads

Chemical Removal of Rust

As environmental concerns have been addressed in recent years, interest in noncaustic chemical rust removal has increased. A variety of commercial products that actively remove the iron oxide without chemically etching the base metal are available and can be considered for use. If at all possible, the steel part is removed from the airframe for treatment, as it can be nearly impossible to remove all residue. The use of any caustic rust removal product requires the isolation of the part from any nonferrous metals during treatment and probably inspection for proper dimensions.

Chemical Surface Treatment of Steel

There are approved methods for converting active rust to phosphates and other protective coatings. Other commercial preparations are effective rust converters where tolerances are not critical and where thorough rinsing and neutralizing of residual acid is possible. These situations are generally not applicable to assembled aircraft, and the use of chemical inhibitors on installed steel parts is not only undesirable, but also very dangerous. The danger of entrapment of corrosive solutions and the resulting uncontrolled attack, that could occur when such materials are used under field conditions, outweigh any advantages to be gained from their use.

Removal of Corrosion from Highly Stressed Steel Parts

Any corrosion on the surface of a highly-stressed steel part is potentially dangerous, and the careful removal of corrosion products is required. Surface scratches or change in surface structure from overheating can also cause sudden failure of these parts. Corrosion products must be removed by careful processing, using mild abrasive papers, such as rouge or fine grit aluminum oxide or fine buffing compounds on cloth buffing wheels. Nonwoven abrasive pads can also be used. It is essential that steel surfaces not be overheated during buffing. After careful removal of surface corrosion, reapply protective paint finishes immediately. The use of chemical corrosion removers is prohibited without engineering authorization, because high-strength steel parts are subject to hydrogen embrittlement.

Corrosion of Aluminum and Aluminum Alloys

Aluminum and aluminum alloys are the most widely used material for aircraft construction. Aluminum appears high in the electro-chemical series of elements and corrodes very easily. However, the formation of a tightly-adhering oxide film offers increased resistance under most corrosive conditions. Most metals in contact with aluminum form couples that undergo galvanic corrosion attack. The alloys of aluminum are subject to pitting, intergranular corrosion, and intergranular stress corrosion cracking. In some cases, the corrosion products of metal in contact with aluminum are corrosive to aluminum. Therefore, aluminum and its alloys must be cleaned and protected.

Corrosion on aluminum surfaces is usually quite obvious, since the products of corrosion are white and generally more voluminous than the original base metal. Even in its early stages, aluminum corrosion is evident as general etching, pitting, or roughness of the aluminum surfaces.

NOTE: Aluminum alloys commonly form a smooth surface oxidation that is from 0.001" to 0.0025" thick. This is not considered detrimental. The coating provides a hard-shell barrier to the introduction of corrosive elements. Such oxidation is not to be confused with the severe corrosion discussed in this paragraph.

General surface attack of aluminum penetrates relatively slowly, but speeds up in the presence of dissolved salts. Considerable attack can usually take place before serious loss of structural strength develops.

At least three forms of attack on aluminum alloys are particularly serious: the penetrating pit-type corrosion through the walls of aluminum tubing, stress-corrosion cracking of materials under sustained stress, and intergranular corrosion, which is characteristic of certain improperly heat-treated aluminum alloys.

In general, corrosion of aluminum can be more effectively treated in place compared to corrosion occurring on other structural materials used in aircraft. Treatment includes the mechanical removal of as much of the corrosion products as practicable and the inhibition of residual materials by chemical means, followed by the restoration of permanent surface coatings.

Treatment of Unpainted Aluminum Surfaces

Relatively pure aluminum has considerably more corrosion resistance when compared with the stronger aluminum alloys. To take advantage of this characteristic, a thin coating of relatively pure aluminum is applied over the base aluminum alloy. The protection obtained is good and the pure-aluminum clad surface, commonly called “Alclad,” can be maintained in a polished condition. In cleaning such surfaces, however, care must be taken to prevent staining and marring of the exposed aluminum. More important from a protection standpoint, avoid unnecessary mechanical removal of the protective Alclad layer and the exposure of the more susceptible aluminum alloy base material. A typical aluminum corrosion treatment sequence follows:
  1. Remove oil and surface dirt from the aluminum surface using any suitable mild cleaner. Use caution when choosing a cleaner. Many commercial consumer products are actually caustic enough to induce corrosion if trapped between aluminum lap joints. Choose a neutral pH product.
  2. Hand polish the corroded areas with fine abrasives or with metal polish. Metal polish intended for use on clad aluminum aircraft surfaces must not be used on anodized aluminum, since it is abrasive enough to actually remove the protective anodized film. It effectively removes stains and produces a highly polished, lasting surface on unpainted Alclad. If a surface is particularly difficult to clean, a cleaner and brightener compound for aluminum can be used before polishing to shorten the time and lessen the effort necessary to get a clean surface.
  3. Treat any superficial corrosion present using an inhibitive wipe down material. An alternate treatment is processing with a solution of sodium dichromate and chromium trioxide. Allow these solutions to remain on the corroded area for 5 to 20 minutes, and then remove the excess by rinsing and wiping the surface dry with a clean cloth.
  4. Overcoat the polished surfaces with waterproof wax.

Aluminum surfaces that are to be subsequently painted can be exposed to more severe cleaning procedures and can also be given more thorough corrective treatment prior to painting. The following sequence is generally used:
  1. Thoroughly clean the affected surfaces of all soil and grease residues prior to processing. Any general aircraft cleaning procedure may be used.
  2. If residual paint film remains, strip the area to be treated. Procedures for the use of paint removers and the precautions to observe were previously mentioned in this chapter under “Surface Cleaning and Paint Removal.”
  3. Treat superficially corroded areas with a 10 percent solution of chromic acid and sulfuric acid. Apply the solution by swab or brush. Scrub the corroded area with the brush while it is still damp. While chromic acid is a good inhibitor for aluminum alloys, even when corrosion products have not been completely removed, it is important that the solution penetrate to the bottom of all pits and underneath any corrosion that may be present. Thorough brushing with a stiff fiber brush loosens or removes most existing corrosion and assures complete penetration of the inhibitor into crevices and pits. Allow the chromic acid to remain in place for at least 5 minutes, and then remove the excess by flushing with water or wiping with a wet cloth. There are several commercial chemical surface treatment compounds similar to the type described above that may also be used.
  4. Dry the treated surface and restore recommended permanent protective coatings, as required in accordance with the aircraft manufacturer’s procedures. Restoration of paint coatings must immediately follow any surface treatment performed. In any case, make sure that corrosion treatment is accomplished or is reapplied on the same day that paint refinishing is scheduled.

Treatment of Anodized Surfaces

As previously stated, anodizing is a common surface treatment of aluminum alloys. When this coating is damaged in service, it can only be partially restored by chemical surface treatment. Therefore, avoid destruction of the oxide film in the unaffected area when performing any corrosion correction of anodized surfaces. Do not use steel wool or steel wire brushes. Do not use severe abrasive materials.

Nonwoven abrasive pads have generally replaced aluminum wool, aluminum wire brushes, or fiber bristle brushes as the tools used for cleaning corroded anodized surfaces. Care must be exercised in any cleaning process to avoid unnecessary breaking of the adjacent protective film. Take every precaution to maintain as much of the protective coating as practicable. Otherwise, treat anodized surfaces in the same manner as other aluminum finishes. Chromic acid and other inhibitive treatments can be used to restore the oxide film.

Treatment of Intergranular Corrosion in Heat-Treated Aluminum Alloy Surfaces

As previously described, intergranular corrosion is an attack along grain boundaries of improperly or inadequately heat-treated alloys, resulting from precipitation of dissimilar constituents following heat treatment. In its most severe form, actual lifting of metal layers (exfoliation) occurs.

More severe cleaning is a must when intergranular corrosion is present. The mechanical removal of all corrosion products and visible delaminated metal layers must be accomplished to determine the extent of the destruction and to evaluate the remaining structural strength of the component. Corrosion depth and removal limits have been established for some aircraft. Any loss of structural strength must be evaluated prior to repair or replacement of the part. If the manufacturer’s limits do not adequately address the damage, a designated engineering representative (DER) can be brought in to assess the damage.

Corrosion of Magnesium Alloys

Magnesium is the most chemically active of the metals used in aircraft construction and is the most difficult to protect. When a failure in the protective coating does occur, the prompt and complete correction of the coating failure is imperative if serious structural damage is to be avoided. Magnesium attack is probably the easiest type of corrosion to detect in its early stages, since magnesium corrosion products occupy several times the volume of the original magnesium metal destroyed. The beginning of attack shows as a lifting of the paint film and white spots on the magnesium surface. These rapidly develop into snow-like mounds or even “white whiskers.” [Figure 4] Reprotection involves the removal of corrosion products, the partial restoration of surface coatings by chemical treatment, and a reapplication of protective coatings.

Corrosion of Aircraft Metals, Alloys and Treatment
Figure 4. Magnesium corrosion

Treatment of Wrought Magnesium Sheet and Forgings

Magnesium skin corrosion usually occurs around edges of skin panels, underneath washers, or in areas physically damaged by shearing, drilling, abrasion, or impact. If the skin section can be removed easily, do so to assure complete inhibition and treatment. If insulating washers are involved, loosen screws sufficiently to permit brush treatment of the magnesium under the insulating washer. Complete mechanical removal of corrosion products is to be practiced insofar as practicable. Limit such mechanical cleaning to the use of stiff, hog bristle brushes and similar nonmetallic cleaning tools (including nonwoven abrasive pads), particularly if treatment is to be performed under field conditions. Like aluminum, under no circumstances are steel or aluminum tools; steel, bronze, or aluminum wool; or other cleaning abrasive pads used on different metal surfaces to be used in cleaning magnesium. Any entrapment of particles from steel wire brushes or steel tools, or contamination of treated surfaces by dirty abrasives, can cause more trouble than the initial corrosive attack.

Corroded magnesium may generally be treated as follows:
  1. Clean and strip the paint from the area to be treated. Paint stripping procedures were discussed earlier in this chapter and are also addressed in FAA AC 43.13-1, Acceptable Methods, Techniques, and Practices—Aircraft Inspection and Repair.
  2. Use a stiff, hog-bristle brush or nonwoven abrasive pad to break loose and remove as much of the corrosion products as practicable. Steel wire brushes, carborundum abrasives, or steel cutting tools must not be used.
  3. Treat the corroded area liberally with a chromic acid solution that sulfuric acid has been added to. Work the solution into pits and crevices by brushing the area while still wet with chromic acid, again using a nonmetallic brush.
  4. Allow the chromic acid to remain in place for 5 to 20 minutes before wiping up the excess with a clean, damp cloth. Do not allow the excess solution to dry and remain on the surface, as paint lifting is caused by such deposits.
  5. As soon as the surfaces are dry, restore the original protective paint.

Treatment of Installed Magnesium Castings

Magnesium castings, in general, are more porous and prone to penetrating attack than wrought magnesium skins. For all practical purposes, however, treatment is the same for all magnesium areas. Engine cases, bellcranks, fittings, numerous covers, plates, and handles are the most common magnesium castings.

When attack occurs on a casting, the earliest practicable treatment is required if dangerous corrosive penetration is to be avoided. In fact, engine cases submerged in saltwater overnight can be completely penetrated. If it is at all practicable, separate parting surfaces to effectively treat the existing attack and prevent its further progress. The same general treatment sequence in the preceding paragraph for magnesium skin is to be followed.

If extensive removal of corrosion products from a structural casting is involved, a decision from the manufacturer may be necessary to evaluate the adequacy of structural strength remaining. Specific structural repair manuals usually include dimensional tolerance limits for critical structural members and must be referred to if any question of safety is involved.

Treatment of Titanium and Titanium Alloys

Attack on titanium surfaces is generally difficult to detect. Titanium is, by nature, highly corrosion resistant, but it may show deterioration from the presence of salt deposits and metal impurities, particularly at high temperatures. Therefore, the use of steel wool, iron scrapers, or steel brushes for cleaning or for the removal of corrosion from titanium parts is prohibited.

If titanium surfaces require cleaning, hand polishing with aluminum polish or a mild abrasive is permissible if fiber brushes only are used and if the surface is treated following cleaning with a suitable solution of sodium dichromate. Wipe the treated surface with dry cloths to remove excess solution, but do not use a water rinse.

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