Aircraft Metal Structural Repair

in Aircraft Metal Structural Repair

The satisfactory performance of an aircraft requires continuous maintenance of aircraft structural integrity. It is important that metal structural repairs be made according to the best available techniques because improper repair techniques can pose an immediate or potential danger. The reliability of an aircraft depends on the quality of the design, as well as the workmanship used in making the repairs. The design of an aircraft metal structural repair is complicated by the requirement that an aircraft be as light as possible. If weight were not a critical factor, repairs could be made with a large margin of safety. In actual practice, repairs must be strong enough to carry all of the loads with the required factor of safety, but they must not have too much extra strength. For example, a joint that is too weak cannot be tolerated, but a joint that is too strong can create stress risers that may cause cracks in other locations.

As discussed in the previous section, Aircraft Fabric Covering, sheet metal aircraft construction dominates modern aviation. Generally, sheet metal made of aluminum alloys is used in airframe sections that serve as both the structure and outer aircraft covering, with the metal parts joined with rivets or other types of fasteners. Sheet metal is used extensively in many types of aircraft from airliners to single engine airplanes, but it may also appear as part of a composite airplane, such as in an instrument panel. Sheet metal is obtained by rolling metal into flat sheets of various thicknesses ranging from thin (leaf) to plate (pieces thicker than 6 mm or 0.25 inch). The thickness of sheet metal, called gauge, ranges from 8 to 30 with the higher gauge denoting thinner metal. Sheet metal can be cut and bent into a variety of shapes.

Damage to metal aircraft structures is often caused by corrosion, erosion, normal stress, and accidents and mishaps. Sometimes aircraft structure modifications require extensive structural rework. For example, the installation of winglets on aircraft not only replaces a wing tip with a winglet, but also requires extensive reinforcing of the wing structure to carry additional stresses.

Numerous and varied methods of repairing metal structural portions of an aircraft exist, but no set of specific repair patterns applies in all cases. The problem of repairing a damaged section is usually solved by duplicating the original part in strength, kind of material, and dimensions. To make a structural repair, the aircraft technician needs a good working knowledge of sheet metal forming methods and techniques. In general, forming means changing the shape by bending and forming solid metal. In the case of aluminum, this is usually done at room temperature. All repair parts are shaped to fit in place before they are attached to the aircraft or component.

Forming may be a very simple operation, such as making a single bend or a single curve, or it may be a complex operation, requiring a compound curvature. Before forming a part, the aircraft technician must give some thought to the complexity of the bends, the material type, the material thickness, the material temper, and the size of the part being fabricated. In most cases, these factors determine which forming method to use. Types of forming discussed in this chapter include bending, brake forming, stretch forming, roll forming, and spinning. The aircraft technician also needs a working knowledge of the proper use of the tools and equipment used in forming metal.

In addition to forming techniques, this chapter introduces the airframe technician to the tools used in sheet metal construction and repair, structural fasteners and their installation, how to inspect, classify, and assess metal structural damage, common repair practices, and types of repairs.

The repairs discussed in this chapter are typical of those used in aircraft maintenance and are included to introduce some of the operations involved. For exact information about specific repairs, consult the manufacturer’s maintenance or structural repair manuals (SRM). General repair instructions are also discussed in Advisory Circular (AC) 43.13.1, Acceptable Methods, Techniques, and Practices—Aircraft Inspection and Repair.

Stresses in Structural Members

An aircraft structure must be designed so that it accepts all of the stresses imposed upon it by the flight and ground loads without any permanent deformation. Any repair made must accept the stresses, carry them across the repair, and then transfer them back into the original structure. These stresses are considered as flowing through the structure, so there must be a continuous path for them, with no abrupt changes in cross-sectional areas along the way. Abrupt changes in cross-sectional areas of aircraft structure that are subject to cycle loading or stresses result in a stress concentration that may induce fatigue cracking and eventual failure. A scratch or gouge in the surface of a highly stressed piece of metal causes a stress concentration at the point of damage and could lead to failure of the part. Forces acting on an aircraft, whether it is on the ground or in flight, introduce pulling, pushing, or twisting forces within the various members of the aircraft structure. While the aircraft is on the ground, the weight of the wings, fuselage, engines, and empennage causes forces to act downward on the wing and stabilizer tips, along the spars and stringers, and on the bulkheads and formers. These forces are passed from member to member causing bending, twisting, pulling, compression, and shearing forces.

As the aircraft takes off, most of the forces in the fuselage continue to act in the same direction; because of the motion of the aircraft, they increase in intensity. The forces on the wingtips and the wing surfaces, however, reverse direction; instead of being downward forces of weight, they become upward forces of lift. The forces of lift are exerted first against the skin and stringers, then are passed on to the ribs, and finally are transmitted through the spars to be distributed through the fuselage. The wings bend upward at their ends and may flutter slightly during flight. This wing bending cannot be ignored by the manufacturer in the original design and construction and cannot be ignored during maintenance. It is surprising how an aircraft structure composed of structural members and skin rigidly riveted or bolted together, such as a wing, can bend or act so much like a leaf spring.

The six types of stress in an aircraft are described as tension, compression, shear, bearing, bending, and torsion (or twisting). The first four are commonly called basic stresses; the last two, combination stresses. Stresses usually act in combinations rather than singly. [Figure 4-1]

Figure 4-1. Stresses in aircraft structures.

Figure 4-1. Stresses in aircraft structures.


Tension is the stress that resists a force that tends to pull apart. The engine pulls the aircraft forward, but air resistance tries to hold it back. The result is tension, which tends to stretch the aircraft. The tensile strength of a material is measured in pounds per square inch (psi) and is calculated by dividing the load (in pounds) required to pull the material apart by its cross-sectional area (in square inches).

The strength of a member in tension is determined on the basis of its gross area (or total area), but calculations involving tension must take into consideration the net area of the member. Net area is defined as the gross area minus that removed by drilling holes or by making other changes in the section. Placing rivets or bolts in holes makes no appreciable difference in added strength, as the rivets or bolts will not transfer tensional loads across holes in which they are inserted.


Compression, the stress that resists a crushing force, tends to shorten or squeeze aircraft parts. The compressive strength of a material is also measured in psi. Under a compressive load, an undrilled member is stronger than an identical member with holes drilled through it. However, if a plug of equivalent or stronger material is fitted tightly in a drilled member, it transfers compressive loads across the hole, and the member carries approximately as large a load as if the hole were not there. Thus, for compressive loads, the gross or total area may be used in determining the stress in a member if all holes are tightly plugged with equivalent or stronger material.


Shear is the stress that resists the force tending to cause one layer of a material to slide over an adjacent layer. Two riveted plates in tension subject the rivets to a shearing force. Usually, the shear strength of a material is either equal to or less than its tensile or compressive strength. Shear stress concerns the aviation technician chiefly from the standpoint of the rivet and bolt applications, particularly when attaching sheet metal, because if a rivet used in a shear application gives way, the riveted or bolted parts are pushed sideways.


Bearing stress resists the force that the rivet or bolt places on the hole. As a rule, the strength of the fastener should be such that its total shear strength is approximately equal to the total bearing strength of the sheet material. [Figure 4-2]

Figure 4-2. Bearing stress.

Figure 4-2. Bearing stress.


Torsion is the stress that produces twisting. While moving the aircraft forward, the engine also tends to twist it to one side, but other aircraft components hold it on course. Thus, torsion is created. The torsional strength of a material is its resistance to twisting or torque (twisting stress). The stresses arising from this action are shear stresses caused by the rotation of adjacent planes past each other around a common reference axis at right angles to these planes. This action may be illustrated by a rod fixed solidly at one end and twisted by a weight placed on a lever arm at the other, producing the equivalent of two equal and opposite forces acting on the rod at some distance from each other. A shearing action is set up all along the rod, with the center line of the rod representing the neutral axis.


Bending (or beam stress) is a combination of compression and tension. The rod in Figure 4-1E has been shortened (compressed) on the inside of the bend and stretched on the outside of the bend. Note that the bending stress causes a tensile stress to act on the upper half of the beam and a compressive stress on the lower half. These stresses act in opposition on the two sides of the center line of the member, which is called the neutral axis. Since these forces acting in opposite directions are next to each other at the neutral axis, the greatest shear stress occurs along this line, and none exists at the extreme upper or lower surfaces of the beam.