Aircraft Composite Structures - Part 1

Laminated Structures

Composite materials consist of a combination of materials that are mixed together to achieve specific structural properties. The individual materials do not dissolve or merge completely in the composite, but they act together as one. Normally, the components can be physically identified as they interface with one another. The properties of the composite material are superior to the properties of the individual materials from which it is constructed.

An advanced composite material is made of a fibrous material embedded in a resin matrix, generally laminated with fibers oriented in alternating directions to give the material strength and stiffness. Fibrous materials are not new; wood is the most common fibrous structural material known to man.

Applications of composites on aircraft include:
  • Fairings
  • Flight control surfaces
  • Landing gear doors
  • Leading and trailing edge panels on the wing and stabilizer
  • Interior components
  • Floor beams and floor boards
  • Vertical and horizontal stabilizer primary structure on large aircraft
  • Primary wing and fuselage structure on new generation large aircraft
  • Turbine engine fan blades
  • Propellers

Major Components of a Laminate

An isotropic material has uniform properties in all directions. The measured properties of an isotropic material are independent of the axis of testing. Metals such as aluminum and titanium are examples of isotropic materials.

A fiber is the primary load carrying element of the composite material. The composite material is only strong and stiff in the direction of the fibers. Unidirectional composites have predominant mechanical properties in one direction and are said to be anisotropic, having mechanical and/or physical properties that vary with direction relative to natural reference axes inherent in the material. Components made from fiber-reinforced composites can be designed so that the fiber orientation produces optimum mechanical properties, but they can only approach the true isotropic nature of metals, such as aluminum and titanium.

A matrix supports the fibers and bonds them together in the composite material. The matrix transfers any applied loads to the fibers, keeps the fibers in their position and chosen orientation, gives the composite environmental resistance, and determines the maximum service temperature of a composite.

Strength Characteristics

Structural properties, such as stiffness, dimensional stability, and strength of a composite laminate, depend on the stacking sequence of the plies. The stacking sequence describes the distribution of ply orientations through the laminate thickness. As the number of plies with chosen orientations increases, more stacking sequences are possible. For example, a symmetric eight-ply laminate with four different ply orientations has 24 different stacking sequences.

Fiber Orientation

The strength and stiffness of a composite buildup depends on the orientation sequence of the plies. The practical range of strength and stiffness of carbon fiber extends from values as low as those provided by fiberglass to as high as those provided by titanium. This range of values is determined by the orientation of the plies to the applied load. Proper selection of ply orientation in advanced composite materials is necessary to provide a structurally efficient design. The part might require 0° plies to react to axial loads, ±45° plies to react to shear loads, and 90° plies to react to side loads. Because the strength design requirements are a function of the applied load direction, ply orientation and ply sequence have to be correct. It is critical during a repair to replace each damaged ply with a ply of the same material and ply orientation.

The fibers in a unidirectional material run in one direction and the strength and stiffness is only in the direction of the fiber. Pre-impregnated (prepreg) tape is an example of a unidirectional ply orientation.

The fibers in a bidirectional material run in two directions, typically 90° apart. A plain weave fabric is an example of a bidirectional ply orientation. These ply orientations have strength in both directions but not necessarily the same strength. [Figure 1]

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Figure 1. Bidirectional and unidirectional material properties

The plies of a quasi-isotropic layup are stacked in a 0°, –45°, 45°, and 90° sequence or in a 0°, –60°, and 60° sequence. [Figure 2] These types of ply orientation simulate the properties of an isotropic material. Many aerospace composite structures are made of quasi-isotropic materials.

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Figure 2. Quasi-isotropic material layup

Warp Clock

Warp indicates the longitudinal fibers of a fabric. The warp is the high strength direction due to the straightness of the fibers. A warp clock is used to describe direction of fibers on a diagram, spec sheet, or manufacturer’s sheets. If the warp clock is not available on the fabric, the orientation is defaulted to zero as the fabric comes off the roll. Therefore, 90° to zero is the width of the fabric across. [Figure 3]

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Figure 3. A warp clock

Fiber Forms

All product forms generally begin with spooled unidirectional raw fibers packaged as continuous strands. An individual fiber is called a filament. The word strand is also used to identify an individual glass fiber. Bundles of filaments are identified as tows, yarns, or rovings. Fiberglass yarns are twisted, while Kevlar® yarns are not. Tows and rovings do not have any twist. Most fibers are available as dry fiber that needs to be impregnated (impreg) with a resin before use or prepreg materials where the resin is already applied to the fiber.


A roving is a single grouping of filament or fiber ends, such as 20-end or 60-end glass rovings. All filaments are in the same direction and they are not twisted. Carbon rovings are usually identified as 3K, 6K, or 12K rovings, K meaning 1,000 filaments. Most applications for roving products utilize mandrels for filament winding and then resin cure to final configuration.

Unidirectional (Tape)

Unidirectional prepreg tapes have been the standard within the aerospace industry for many years, and the fiber is typically impregnated with thermosetting resins. The most common method of manufacture is to draw collimated raw (dry) strands into the impregnation machine where hot melted resins are combined with the strands using heat and pressure. Tape products have high strength in the fiber direction and virtually no strength across the fibers. The fibers are held in place by the resin. Tapes have a higher strength than woven fabrics. [Figure 4]

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Figure 4. Tape and fabric products

Bidirectional (Fabric)

Most fabric constructions offer more flexibility for layup of complex shapes than straight unidirectional tapes offer. Fabrics offer the option for resin impregnation either by solution or the hot melt process. Generally, fabrics used for structural applications use like fibers or strands of the same weight or yield in both the warp (longitudinal) and fill (transverse) directions. For aerospace structures, tightly woven fabrics are usually the choice to save weight, minimizing resin void size, and maintaining fiber orientation during the fabrication process.

Woven structural fabrics are usually constructed with reinforcement tows, strands, or yarns interlocking upon themselves with over/under placement during the weaving process. The more common fabric styles are plain or satin weaves. The plain weave construction results from each fiber alternating over and then under each intersecting strand (tow, bundle, or yarn). With the common satin weaves, such as 5 harness or 8 harness, the fiber bundles traverse both in warp and fill directions changing over/under position less frequently.

These satin weaves have less crimp and are easier to distort than a plain weave. With plain weave fabrics and most 5 or 8 harness woven fabrics, the fiber strand count is equal in both warp and fill directions. For example, 3K plain weave often has an additional designation, such as 12 x 12, meaning there are twelve tows per inch in each direction. This count designation can be varied to increase or decrease fabric weight or to accommodate different fibers of varying weight. [Figure 5]

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Figure 5. Typical fabric weave styles

Nonwoven (Knitted or Stitched)

Knitted or stitched fabrics can offer many of the mechanical advantages of unidirectional tapes. Fiber placement can be straight or unidirectional without the over/under turns of woven fabrics. The fibers are held in place by stitching with fine yarns or threads after preselected orientations of one or more layers of dry plies. These types of fabrics offer a wide range of multi-ply orientations. Although there may be some added weight penalties or loss of some ultimate reinforcement fiber properties, some gain of interlaminar shear and toughness properties may be realized. Some common stitching yarns are polyester, aramid, or thermoplastics. [Figure 6]

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Figure 6. Nonwoven material (stitched)

Types of Fiber


Fiberglass is often used for secondary structure on aircraft, such as fairings, radomes, and wing tips. Fiberglass is also used for helicopter rotor blades. There are several types of fiberglass used in the aviation industry. Electrical glass, or E-glass, is identified as such for electrical applications. It has high resistance to current flow. E-glass is made from borosilicate glass. S-glass and S2-glass identify structural fiberglass that have a higher strength than E-glass. S-glass is produced from magnesia-alumina-silicate. Advantages of fiberglass are lower cost than other composite materials, chemical or galvanic corrosion resistance, and electrical properties (fiberglass does not conduct electricity). Fiberglass has a white color and is available as a dry fiber fabric or prepreg material.


Kevlar® is DuPont’s name for aramid fibers. Aramid fibers are light weight, strong, and tough. Two types of aramid fiber are used in the aviation industry. Kevlar® 49 has a high stiffness and Kevlar® 29 has a low stiffness. An advantage of aramid fibers is their high resistance to impact damage, so they are often used in areas prone to impact damage. The main disadvantage of aramid fibers is their general weakness in compression and hygroscopy. Service reports have indicated that some parts made from Kevlar® absorb up to 8 percent of their weight in water. Therefore, parts made from aramid fibers need to be protected from the environment. Another disadvantage is that Kevlar® is difficult to drill and cut. The fibers fuzz easily and special scissors are needed to cut the material. Kevlar® is often used for military ballistic and body armor applications. It has a natural yellow color and is available as dry fabric and prepreg material. Bundles of aramid fibers are not sized by the number of fibers like carbon or fiberglass but by the weight.


One of the first distinctions to be made among fibers is the difference between carbon and graphite fibers, although the terms are frequently used interchangeably. Carbon and graphite fibers are based on graphene (hexagonal) layer networks present in carbon. If the graphene layers, or planes, are stacked with three dimensional order, the material is defined as graphite. Usually extended time and temperature processing is required to form this order, making graphite fibers more expensive. Bonding between planes is weak. Disorder frequently occurs such that only two-dimensional ordering within the layers is present. This material is defined as carbon.

Carbon fibers are very stiff and strong, 3 to 10 times stiffer than glass fibers. Carbon fiber is used for structural aircraft applications, such as floor beams, stabilizers, flight controls, and primary fuselage and wing structure. Advantages include its high strength and corrosion resistance. Disadvantages include lower conductivity than aluminum; therefore, a lightning protection mesh or coating is necessary for aircraft parts that are prone to lightning strikes. Another disadvantage of carbon fiber is its high cost. Carbon fiber is gray or black in color and is available as dry fabric and prepreg material. Carbon fibers have a high potential for causing galvanic corrosion when used with metallic fasteners and structures. [Figure 7]

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Figure 7. Fiberglass (left), Kevlar® (middle), and carbon fiber material (right)


Boron fibers are very stiff and have a high tensile and compressive strength. The fibers have a relatively large diameter and do not flex well; therefore, they are available only as a prepreg tape product. An epoxy matrix is often used with the boron fiber. Boron fibers are used to repair cracked aluminum aircraft skins, because the thermal expansion of boron is close to aluminum and there is no galvanic corrosion potential. The boron fiber is difficult to use if the parent material surface has a contoured shape. The boron fibers are very expensive and can be hazardous for personnel. Boron fibers are used primarily in military aviation applications.

Ceramic Fibers

Ceramic fibers are used for high-temperature applications, such as turbine blades in a gas turbine engine. The ceramic fibers can be used to temperatures up to 2,200 °F.

Lightning Protection Fibers

An aluminum airplane is quite conductive and is able to dissipate the high currents resulting from a lightning strike. Carbon fibers are 1,000 times more resistive than aluminum to current flow, and epoxy resin is 1,000,000 times more resistive (i.e., perpendicular to the skin). The surface of an external composite component often consists of a ply or layer of conductive material for lightning strike protection because composite materials are less conductive than aluminum. Many different types of conductive materials are used ranging from nickel-coated graphite cloth to metal meshes to aluminized fiberglass to conductive paints. The materials are available for wet layup and as prepreg.

In addition to a normal structural repair, the technician must also recreate the electrical conductivity designed into the part. These types of repair generally require a conductivity test to be performed with an ohmmeter to verify minimum electrical resistance across the structure. When repairing these types of structures, it is extremely important to use only the approved materials from authorized vendors, including such items as potting compounds, sealants, adhesives, and so forth. [Figures 8 and 9]

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Figure 8. Copper mesh lightning protection material

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Figure 9. Aluminum mesh lightning protection material

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