Inspection of Aircraft Bonded Structures (Part 1) - Inspection Concepts and Techniques | Aircraft Systems

Inspection of Aircraft Bonded Structures (Part 1) - Inspection Concepts and Techniques

Ultrasonic inspection is finding increasing application in aircraft bonded construction and repair. Many configurations and types of bonded structures are in use in aircraft. All of these variations complicate the application of ultrasonic inspections. An inspection method that works well on one part or one area of the part may not be applicable for different parts or areas of the same part. Some of the variables in the types of bonded structures are as follows:
  • Top skin material is made from different materials and thickness
  • Different types and thickness of adhesives are used in bonded structures
  • Underlying structures contain differences in core material, cell size, thickness, height, back skin material and thickness, doublers (material and thickness), closure member attachments, foam adhesive, steps in skins, internal ribs, and laminates (number of layers, layer thickness, and layer material)
  • The top only or top and bottom skin of a bonded structure may be accessible

Types of Defects

Defects can be separated into five general types to represent the various areas of bonded and laminate structures as follows:
  1. Type I—disbonds or voids in an outer skin-to­adhesive interface.
  2. Type II—disbonds or voids at the adhesive-to-core interface.
  3. Type III—voids between layers of a laminate.
  4. Type IV—voids in foam adhesive or disbonds between the adhesive and a closure member at core-to-closure member joints.
  5. Type V—water in the core.


Acoustic Emission Inspection

Acoustic emission is an NDI technique that involves the placing of acoustic emission sensors at various locations on an aircraft structure and then applying a load or stress. The materials emit sound and stress waves that take the form of ultrasonic pulses. Cracks and areas of corrosion in the stressed airframe structure emit sound waves that are registered by the sensors. These acoustic emission bursts can be used to locate flaws and to evaluate their rate of growth as a function of applied stress. Acoustic emission testing has an advantage over other NDI methods in that it can detect and locate all of the activated flaws in a structure in one test. Because of the complexity of aircraft structures, application of acoustic emission testing to aircraft has required a new level of sophistication in testing technique and data interpretation.

Magnetic Particle Inspection

Magnetic particle inspection is a method of detecting invisible cracks and other defects in ferromagnetic materials, such as iron and steel. It is not applicable to nonmagnetic materials. In rapidly rotating, reciprocating, vibrating, and other highly-stressed aircraft parts, small defects often develop to the point that they cause complete failure of the part. Magnetic particle inspection has proven extremely reliable for the rapid detection of such defects located on or near the surface. With this method of inspection, the location of the defect is indicated and the approximate size and shape are outlined.

The inspection process consists of magnetizing the part and then applying ferromagnetic particles to the surface area to be inspected. The ferromagnetic particles (indicating medium) may be held in suspension in a liquid that is flushed over the part; the part may be immersed in the suspension liquid; or the particles, in dry powder form, may be dusted over the surface of the part. The wet process is more commonly used in the inspection of aircraft parts.

If a discontinuity is present, the magnetic lines of force are disturbed and opposite poles exist on either side of the discontinuity. The magnetized particles thus form a pattern in the magnetic field between the opposite poles. This pattern, known as an “indication,” assumes the approximate shape of the surface projection of the discontinuity. A discontinuity may be defined as an interruption in the normal physical structure or configuration of a part, such as a crack, forging lap, seam, inclusion, porosity, and the like. A discontinuity may or may not affect the usefulness of a part.

Development of Indications

When a discontinuity in a magnetized material is open to the surface and a magnetic substance (indicating medium) is available on the surface, the flux leakage at the discontinuity tends to form the indicating medium into a path of higher permeability. (Permeability is a term used to refer to the ease that a magnetic flux can be established in a given magnetic circuit.) Because of the magnetism in the part and the adherence of the magnetic particles to each other, the indication remains on the surface of the part in the form of an approximate outline of the discontinuity that is immediately below it. The same action takes place when the discontinuity is not open to the surface, but since the amount of flux leakage is less, fewer particles are held in place and a fainter and less sharply defined indication is obtained.

If the discontinuity is very far below the surface, there may be no flux leakage and no indication on the surface. The flux leakage at a transverse discontinuity is shown in Figure 1. The flux leakage at a longitudinal discontinuity is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 1. Flux leakage at transverse discontinuity

Figure 2. Flux leakage at longitudinal discontinuity

Types of Discontinuities Disclosed

The following types of discontinuities are normally detected by the magnetic particle test: cracks, laps, seams, cold shuts, inclusions, splits, tears, pipes, and voids. All of these may affect the reliability of parts in service.

Cracks, splits, bursts, tears, seams, voids, and pipes are formed by an actual parting or rupture of the solid metal. Cold shuts and laps are folds that have been formed in the metal, interrupting its continuity.

Inclusions are foreign material formed by impurities in the metal during the metal processing stages. They may consist, for example, of bits of furnace lining picked up during the melting of the basic metal or of other foreign constituents.

Inclusions interrupt the continuity of the metal, because they prevent the joining or welding of adjacent faces of the metal.

Preparation of Parts for Testing

Grease, oil, and dirt must be cleaned from all parts before they are tested. Cleaning is very important since any grease or other foreign material present can produce nonrelevant indications due to magnetic particles adhering to the foreign material as the suspension drains from the part.

Grease or foreign material in sufficient amount over a discontinuity may also prevent the formation of a pattern at the discontinuity. It is not advisable to depend upon the magnetic particle suspension to clean the part. Cleaning by suspension is not thorough and any foreign materials so removed from the part contaminates the suspension, thereby reducing its effectiveness.


In the dry procedure, thorough cleaning is absolutely necessary. Grease or other foreign material holds the magnetic powder, resulting in nonrelevant indications and making it impossible to distribute the indicating medium evenly over the part’s surface. All small openings and oil holes leading to internal passages or cavities must be plugged with paraffin or other suitable nonabrasive material.

Coatings of cadmium, copper, tin, and zinc do not interfere with the satisfactory performance of magnetic particle inspection, unless the coatings are unusually heavy or the discontinuities to be detected are unusually small.

Chromium and nickel plating generally do not interfere with indications of cracks open to the surface of the base metal, but prevent indications of fine discontinuities, such as inclusions. Because it is more strongly magnetic, nickel plating is more effective than chromium plating in preventing the formation of indications.

Effect of Flux Direction

To locate a defect in a part, it is essential that the magnetic lines of force pass approximately perpendicular to the defect. It is, therefore, necessary to induce magnetic flux in more than one direction, since defects are likely to exist at any angle to the major axis of the part. This requires two separate magnetizing operations, referred to as circular magnetization and longitudinal magnetization. The effect of flux direction is illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Effect of flux direction on strength of indication

Circular magnetization is the induction of a magnetic field consisting of concentric circles of force about and within the part. This is achieved by passing electric current through the part, locating defects running approximately parallel to the axis of the part. Figure 4 illustrates circular magnetization of a crankshaft. In longitudinal magnetization, the magnetic field is produced in a direction parallel to the long axis of the part. This is accomplished by placing the part in a solenoid excited by electric current. The metal part then becomes the core of an electromagnet and is magnetized by induction from the magnetic field created in the solenoid.

Figure 4. Circular magnetization of a crankshaft

In longitudinal magnetization of long parts, the solenoid must be moved along the part in order to magnetize it. [Figure 5] This is necessary to ensure adequate field strength throughout the entire length of the part.

Figure 5. Longitudinal magnetization of camshaft (solenoid method)

Solenoids produce effective magnetization for approximately 12 inches from each end of the coil, thus accommodating parts or sections approximately 30 inches in length. Longitudinal magnetization equivalent to that obtained by a solenoid may be accomplished by wrapping a flexible electrical conductor around the part. Although this method is not as convenient, it has an advantage in that the coils conform more closely to the shape of the part, producing a somewhat more uniform magnetization. The flexible coil method is also useful for large or irregularly-shaped parts when standard solenoids are not available.

Effect of Flux Density

The effectiveness of the magnetic particle inspection also depends on the flux density or field strength at the surface of the part when the indicating medium is applied. As the flux density in the part is increased, the sensitivity of the test increases, because of the greater flux leakages at discontinuities and the resulting improved formation of magnetic particle patterns.

Excessively high flux densities may form nonrelevant indications, such as patterns of the grain flow in the material. These indications interfere with the detection of patterns resulting from significant discontinuities. It is therefore necessary to use a field strength high enough to reveal all possible harmful discontinuities, but not strong enough to produce confusing nonrelevant indications.

Magnetizing Methods

When a part is magnetized, the field strength in the part increases to a maximum for the particular magnetizing force and remains at this maximum as long as the magnetizing force is maintained.

When the magnetizing force is removed, the field strength decreases to a lower residual value depending on the magnetic properties of the material and the shape of the part. These magnetic characteristics determine whether the continuous or residual method is used in magnetizing the part.

In the continuous inspection method, the part is magnetized and the indicating medium applied while the magnetizing force is maintained. The available flux density in the part is thus at a maximum. The maximum value of flux depends directly upon the magnetizing force and the permeability of the material that the part is made of.

The continuous method may be used in practically all circular and longitudinal magnetization procedures. The continuous procedure provides greater sensitivity than the residual procedure, particularly in locating subsurface discontinuities. The highly critical nature of aircraft parts and assemblies and the necessity for subsurface inspection in many applications have resulted in the continuous method being more widely used. Since the continuous procedure reveals more nonsignificant discontinuities than the residual procedure, careful and intelligent interpretation and evaluation of discontinuities revealed by this procedure are necessary.

The residual inspection procedure involves magnetization of the part and application of the indicating medium after the magnetizing force has been removed. This procedure relies on the residual or permanent magnetism in the part and is more practical than the continuous procedure when magnetization is accomplished by flexible coils wrapped around the part. In general, the residual procedure is used only with steels that have been heat treated for stressed applications.


Identification of Indications

The correct evaluation of the character of indications is extremely important but is sometimes difficult to make from observation of the indications alone. The principal distinguishing features of indications are shape, buildup, width, and sharpness of outline. These characteristics are more valuable in distinguishing between types of discontinuities than in determining their severity. Careful observation of the character of the magnetic particle pattern must always be included in the complete evaluation of the significance of an indicated discontinuity.

The most readily distinguished indications are those produced by cracks open to the surface. These discontinuities include fatigue cracks, heat treat cracks, shrink cracks in welds and castings, and grinding cracks. An example of a fatigue crack is shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Fatigue crack on the bottom end fitting of a Hydrosorb shock absorber

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