A Brief History of Aircraft Structures

in Aircraft Structures

The history of aircraft structures underlies the history of aviation in general. Advances in materials and processes used to construct aircraft have led to their evolution from simple wood truss structures to the sleek aerodynamic flying machines of today. Combined with continuous powerplant development, the structures of “flying machines” have changed significantly.

The key discovery that “lift” could be created by passing air over the top of a curved surface set the development of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft in motion. George Cayley developed an efficient cambered airfoil in the early 1800s, as well as successful manned gliders later in that century. He established the principles of flight, including the existence of lift, weight, thrust, and drag. It was Cayley who first stacked wings and created a tri-wing glider that flew a man in 1853.


Earlier, Cayley studied the center of gravity of flying machines, as well as the effects of wing dihedral. Furthermore, he pioneered directional control of aircraft by including the earliest form of a rudder on his gliders. [Figure 1-1]

Figure 1-1. George Cayley, the father of aeronautics (top) and a flying replica of his 1853 glider (bottom).

Figure 1-1. George Cayley, the father of aeronautics (top) and a flying replica of his 1853 glider (bottom).

In the late 1800s, Otto Lilienthal built upon Cayley’s discoveries. He manufactured and flew his own gliders on over 2,000 flights. His willow and cloth aircraft had wings designed from extensive study of the wings of birds. Lilienthal also made standard use of vertical and horizontal fins behind the wings and pilot station. Above all, Lilienthal proved that man could fly. [Figure 1-2]

Figure 1-2. Master of gliding and wing study, Otto Lilienthal (top) and one of his more than 2,000 glider flights (bottom).

Figure 1-2. Master of gliding and wing study, Otto Lilienthal (top) and one of his more than 2,000 glider flights (bottom).

Octave Chanute, a retired railroad and bridge engineer, was active in aviation during the 1890s. [Figure 1-3] His interest was so great that, among other things, he published a definitive work called “Progress in Flying Machines.” This was the culmination of his effort to gather and study all the information available on aviation. With the assistance of others, he built gliders similar to Lilienthal’s and then his own. In addition to his publication, Chanute advanced aircraft structure development by building a glider with stacked wings incorporating the use of wires as wing supports.

Figure 1-3. Octave Chanute gathered and published all of the aeronautical knowledge known to date in the late 1890s. Many early aviators benefited from this knowledge.

Figure 1-3. Octave Chanute gathered and published all of the aeronautical knowledge known to date in the late 1890s. Many early aviators benefited from this knowledge.

The work of all of these men was known to the Wright Brothers when they built their successful, powered airplane in 1903. The first of its kind to carry a man aloft, the Wright Flyer had thin, cloth-covered wings attached to what was primarily truss structures made of wood. The wings contained forward and rear spars and were supported with both struts and wires. Stacked wings (two sets) were also part of the Wright Flyer. [Figure 1-4]

Figure 1-4. The Wright Flyer was the first successful powered aircraft. It was made primarily of wood and fabric.

Figure 1-4. The Wright Flyer was the first successful powered aircraft. It was made primarily of wood and fabric.

Powered heavier-than-air aviation grew from the Wright design. Inventors and fledgling aviators began building their own aircraft. Early on, many were similar to that constructed by the Wrights using wood and fabric with wires and struts to support the wing structure. In 1909, Frenchman Louis Bleriot produced an aircraft with notable design differences. He built a successful mono-wing aircraft. The wings were still supported by wires, but a mast extending above the fuselage enabled the wings to be supported from above, as well as underneath. This made possible the extended wing length needed to lift an aircraft with a single set of wings. Bleriot used a Pratt truss-type fuselage frame. [Figure 1-5]

Figure 1-5. The world’s first mono-wing by Louis Bleriot.

Figure 1-5. The world’s first mono-wing by Louis Bleriot.

More powerful engines were developed and airframe structures changed to take advantage of the benefits. As early as 1910, German Hugo Junkers was able to build an aircraft with metal truss construction and metal skin due to the availability of stronger powerplants to thrust the plane forward and into the sky. The use of metal instead of wood for the primary structure eliminated the need for external wing braces and wires. His J-1 also had a single set of wings (a monoplane) instead of a stacked set. [Figure 1-6]

Figure 1-6. The Junker J-1 all metal construction in 1910.

Figure 1-6. The Junker J-1 all metal construction in 1910.

Leading up to World War I (WWI), stronger engines also allowed designers to develop thicker wings with stronger spars. Wire wing bracing was no longer needed. Flatter, lower wing surfaces on high-camber wings created more lift. WWI expanded the need for large quantities of reliable aircraft. Used mostly for reconnaissance, stacked-wing tail draggers with wood and metal truss frames with mostly fabric skin dominated the wartime sky. [Figure 1-7] The Red Baron’s Fokker DR-1 was typical.

 

Figure 1-7. World War I aircraft were typically stacked-wing fabriccovered aircraft like this Breguet 14 (circa 1917).

Figure 1-7. World War I aircraft were typically stacked-wing fabriccovered aircraft like this Breguet 14 (circa 1917).

construction of fuselages. [Figure 1-8] Truss-type designs faded. A tendency toward cleaner monowing designs prevailed.

Figure 1-8. The flying boat hull was an early semimonocoque design like this Curtiss HS-2L.

Figure 1-8. The flying boat hull was an early semimonocoque design like this Curtiss HS-2L.

Into the 1930s, all-metal aircraft accompanied new lighter and more powerful engines. Larger semimonocoque fuselages were complimented with stress-skin wing designs. Fewer truss and fabric aircraft were built. World War II (WWII) brought about a myriad of aircraft designs using all metal technology. Deep fuel-carrying wings were the norm, but the desire for higher flight speeds prompted the development of thin-winged aircraft in which fuel was carried in the fuselage. The first composite structure aircraft, the De Havilland Mosquito, used a balsa wood sandwich material in the construction of the fuselage. [Figure 1-9] The fiberglass radome was also developed during this period.

Figure 1-9. The DeHavilland Mosquito, the first aircraft with foam core honeycomb in the fuselage.

Figure 1-9. The DeHavilland Mosquito, the first aircraft with foam core honeycomb in the fuselage.

After WWII, the development of turbine engines led to higher altitude flight. The need for pressurized aircraft pervaded aviation. Semimonocoque construction needed to be made even stronger as a result. Refinements to the all-metal semimonocoque fuselage structure were made to increase strength and combat metal fatigue caused by the pressurization-depressurization cycle. Rounded windows and door openings were developed to avoid weak areas where cracks could form. Integrally machined copper alloy aluminum skin resisted cracking and allowed thicker skin and controlled tapering. Chemical milling of wing skin structures provided great strength and smooth high performance surfaces. Variable contour wings became easier to construct. Increases in flight speed accompanying jet travel very light jet (VLJ). brought about the need for thinner wings. Wing loading also increased greatly. Multispar and box beam wing designs were developed in response.

In the 1960s, ever larger aircraft were developed to carry passengers. As engine technology improved, the jumbo jet was engineered and built. Still primarily aluminum with a semimonocoque fuselage, the sheer size of the airliners of the day initiated a search for lighter and stronger materials from which to build them. The use of honeycomb constructed panels in Boeing’s airline series saved weight while not compromising strength. Initially, aluminum core with aluminum or fiberglass skin sandwich panels were used on wing panels, flight control surfaces, cabin floor boards, and other applications.

Figure 1-10. The nearly all composite Cessna Citation Mustang very light jet (VLJ).

Figure 1-10. The nearly all composite Cessna Citation Mustang very light jet (VLJ).

A steady increase in the use of honeycomb and foam core sandwich components and a wide variety of composite materials characterizes the state of aviation structures from the 1970s to the present. Advanced techniques and material combinations have resulted in a gradual shift from aluminum to carbon fiber and other strong, lightweight materials. These new materials are engineered to meet specific performance requirements for various components on the aircraft. Many airframe structures are made of more than 50 percent advanced composites, with some airframes approaching 100 percent. The term “very light jet” (VLJ) has come to describe a new generation of jet aircraft made almost entirely of advanced composite materials. [Figure 1-10] It is possible that noncomposite aluminum aircraft structures will become obsolete as did the methods and materials of construction used by Cayley, Lilienthal, and the Wright Brothers.