Fixed Wing Aircraft Structures


The fuselage is the main structure or body of the fixed-wing aircraft. It provides space for cargo, controls, accessories, passengers, and other equipment. In single-engine aircraft, the fuselage houses the powerplant. In multiengine aircraft, the engines may be either in the fuselage, attached to the fuselage, or suspended from the wing structure. There are two general types of fuselage construction: truss and monocoque.

Truss Type

A truss is a rigid framework made up of members, such as beams, struts, and bars to resist deformation by applied loads. The truss-framed fuselage is generally covered with fabric. The truss-type fuselage frame is usually constructed of steel tubing welded together in such a manner that all members of the truss can carry both tension and compression loads. [Figure 1]

Fixed Wing Aircraft Structures
Figure 1. A truss-type fuselage. A Warren truss uses mostly diagonal bracing

In some aircraft, principally the light, single engine models, truss fuselage frames may be constructed of aluminum alloy and may be riveted or bolted into one piece, with cross-bracing achieved by using solid rods or tubes.

Monocoque Type

The monocoque (single shell) fuselage relies largely on the strength of the skin or covering to carry the primary loads. The design may be divided into two classes:
  1. Monocoque
  2. Semimonocoque

Different portions of the same fuselage may belong to either of the two classes, but most modern aircraft are considered to be of semimonocoque type construction.

The true monocoque construction uses formers, frame assemblies, and bulkheads to give shape to the fuselage. [Figure 2] The heaviest of these structural members are located at intervals to carry concentrated loads and at points where fittings are used to attach other units such as wings, powerplants, and stabilizers. Since no other bracing members are present, the skin must carry the primary stresses and keep the fuselage rigid. Thus, the biggest problem involved in monocoque construction is maintaining enough strength while keeping the weight within allowable limits.

Fixed Wing Aircraft Structures
Figure 2. An airframe using monocoque construction

Semimonocoque Type

To overcome the strength/weight problem of monocoque construction, a modification called semimonocoque construction was developed. It also consists of frame assemblies, bulkheads, and formers as used in the monocoque design but, additionally, the skin is reinforced by longitudinal members called longerons. Longerons usually extend across several frame members and help the skin support primary bending loads. They are typically made of aluminum alloy either of a single piece or a built-up construction.

Stringers are also used in the semimonocoque fuselage. These longitudinal members are typically more numerous and lighter in weight than the longerons. They come in a variety of shapes and are usually made from single piece aluminum alloy extrusions or formed aluminum. Stringers have some rigidity but are chiefly used for giving shape and for attachment of the skin. Stringers and longerons together prevent tension and compression from bending the fuselage. [Figure 3]

Fixed Wing Aircraft Structures
Figure 3. The most common airframe construction is semimonocoque

Other bracing between the longerons and stringers can also be used. Often referred to as web members, these additional support pieces may be installed vertically or diagonally. It must be noted that manufacturers use different nomenclature to describe structural members. For example, there is often little difference between some rings, frames, and formers. One manufacturer may call the same type of brace a ring or a frame. Manufacturer instructions and specifications for a specific aircraft are the best guides.

The semimonocoque fuselage is constructed primarily of alloys of aluminum and magnesium, although steel and titanium are sometimes found in areas of high temperatures. Individually, no one of the aforementioned components is strong enough to carry the loads imposed during flight and landing. But, when combined, those components form a strong, rigid framework. This is accomplished with gussets, rivets, nuts and bolts, screws, and even friction stir welding. A gusset is a type of connection bracket that adds strength. [Figure 4]

Fixed Wing Aircraft Structures
Figure 4. Gussets are used to increase strength

To summarize, in semimonocoque fuselages, the strong, heavy longerons hold the bulkheads and formers, and these, in turn, hold the stringers, braces, web members, etc. All are designed to be attached together and to the skin to achieve the full strength benefits of semimonocoque design. It is important to recognize that the metal skin or covering carries part of the load. The fuselage skin thickness can vary with the load carried and the stresses sustained at a particular location.

The advantages of the semimonocoque fuselage are many. The bulkheads, frames, stringers, and longerons facilitate the design and construction of a streamlined fuselage that is both rigid and strong. Spreading loads among these structures and the skin means no single piece is failure critical. This means that a semimonocoque fuselage, because of its stressed-skin construction, may withstand considerable damage and still be strong enough to hold together.

Fuselages are generally constructed in two or more sections. On small aircraft, they are generally made in two or three sections, while larger aircraft may be made up of as many as six sections or more before being assembled.


Many aircraft are pressurized. This means that air is pumped into the cabin after takeoff and a difference in pressure between the air inside the cabin and the air outside the cabin is established. This differential is regulated and maintained. In this manner, enough oxygen is made available for passengers to breathe normally and move around the cabin without special equipment at high altitudes.

Pressurization causes significant stress on the fuselage structure and adds to the complexity of design. In addition to withstanding the difference in pressure between the air inside and outside the cabin, cycling from unpressurized to pressurized and back again each flight causes metal fatigue. To deal with these impacts and the other stresses of flight, nearly all pressurized aircraft are semimonocoque in design. Pressurized fuselage structures undergo extensive periodic inspections to ensure that any damage is discovered and repaired. Repeated weakness or failure in an area of structure may require that section of the fuselage be modified or redesigned.