Nonferrous Aircraft Metals – Aluminum and Aluminum Alloys

in Aircraft Materials Processes and Hardware

The term “nonferrous” refers to all metals which have elements other than iron as their base or principal constituent. This group includes such metals as aluminum, titanium, copper, and magnesium, as well as such alloyed metals as Monel and babbit.

Aluminum and Aluminum Alloys

Commercially pure aluminum is a white lustrous metal which stands second in the scale of malleability, sixth in ductility, and ranks high in its resistance to corrosion. Aluminum combined with various percentages of other metals forms alloys which are used in aircraft construction.

Aluminum alloys in which the principal alloying ingredientsare manganese, chromium, or magnesium and silicon show little attack in corrosive environments. Alloys in which substantial percentages of copper are used are more susceptible to corrosive action. The total percentage of alloying elements is seldom more than 6 or 7 percent in the wrought alloys.

Aluminum is one of the most widely used metals in modern aircraft construction. It is vital to the aviation industry because of its high strength to weight ratio and its comparative ease of fabrication. The outstanding characteristic of aluminum is its light weight. Aluminum melts at the comparatively low temperature of 1,250 °F. It is nonmagnetic and is an excellent conductor.

Commercially pure aluminum has a tensile strength of about 13,000 psi, but its strength may be approximately doubled by rolling or other cold working processes. By alloying with other metals, or by using heat-treating processes, the tensile strength may be raised to as high as 65,000 psi or to within the strength range of structural steel.

Aluminum alloys, although strong, are easily worked because they are malleable and ductile. They may be rolled into sheets as thin as 0.0017 inch or drawn into wire 0.004 inch in diameter. Most aluminum alloy sheet stock used in aircraft construction range from 0.016 to 0.096 inch in thickness; however, some of the larger aircraft use sheet stock which may be as thick as 0.356 inch.

The various types of aluminum may be divided into two general classes: (1) casting alloys (those suitable for casting in sand, permanent mold, or die castings) and (2) wrought alloys (those which may be shaped by rolling, drawing, or forging). Of these two, the wrought alloys are the most widely used in aircraft construction, being used for stringers, bulkheads, skin, rivets, and extruded sections.

Aluminum casting alloys are divided into two basic groups. In one, the physical properties of the alloys are determined by the alloying elements and cannot be changed after the metal is cast. In the other, the alloying elements make it possible to heat treat the casting to produce the desired physical properties.

The casting alloys are identified by a letter preceding the alloy number. When a letter precedes a number, it indicates a slight variation in the composition of the original alloy. This variation in composition is simply to impart some desirable quality. In casting alloy 214, for example, the addition of zinc to improve its pouring qualities is indicated by the letter A in front of the number, thus creating the designation A214.

When castings have been heat treated, the heat treatment and the composition of the casting is indicated by the letter T, followed by an alloying number. An example of this is the sand casting alloy 355, which has several different compositions and tempers and is designated by 355-T6, 355-T51, or C355-T51.

Aluminum alloy castings are produced by one of three basic methods: (1) sand mold, (2) permanent mold, or (3) die cast. In casting aluminum, it must be remembered that in most cases different types of alloys must be used for different types of castings. Sand castings and die castings require different types of alloys than those used in permanent molds.

Sand and permanent mold castings are parts produced by pouring molten metal into a previously prepared mold, allowing the metal to solidify or freeze, and then removing the part. If the mold is made of sand, the part is a sand casting; if it is a metallic mold (usually cast iron) the part is a permanent mold casting. Sand and permanent castings are produced by pouring liquid metal into the mold, the metal flowing under the force of gravity alone.

The two principal types of sand casting alloys are 112 and 212. Little difference exists between the two metals from a mechanical properties standpoint, since both are adaptable to a wide range of products.

The permanent mold process is a later development of the sand casting process, the major difference being in the material from which the molds are made. The advantage of this process is that there are fewer openings (called porosity) than in sand castings. The sand and the binder, which is mixed with the sand to hold it together, give off a certain amount of gas which causes porosity in a sand casting.

Permanent mold castings are used to obtain higher mechanical properties, better surfaces, or more accurate dimensions. There are two specific types of permanent mold castings: (1) permanent metal mold with metal cores, and (2) semipermanent types containing sand cores. Because finer grain structure is produced in alloys subjected to the rapid cooling of metal molds, they are far superior to the sand type castings. Alloys 122, A132, and 142 are commonly used in permanent mold castings, the principal uses of which are in internal combustion engines.

Die castings used in aircraft are usually aluminum or magnesium alloy. If weight is of primary importance, magnesium alloy is used because it is lighter than aluminum alloy. However, aluminum alloy is frequently used because it is stronger than most magnesium alloys.

A die casting is produced by forcing molten metal under pressure into a metallic die and allowing it to solidify; then the die is opened and the part removed. The basic difference between permanent mold casting and die casting is that in the permanent mold process the metal flows into the die under gravity. In the die casting operation, the metal is forced under great pressure.

Die castings are used where relatively large production of a given part is involved. Remember, any shape which can be forged can be cast.

Wrought aluminum and wrought aluminum alloys are divided into two general classes: non-heat-treatable alloys and heat-treatable alloys.

Non-heat-treatable alloys are those in which the mechanical properties are determined by the amount of cold work introduced after the final annealing operation. The mechanical properties obtained by cold working are destroyed by any subsequent heating and cannot be restored except by additional cold working, which is not always possible. The “full hard” temper is produced by the maximum amount of cold work that is commercially practicable. Metal in the “as fabricated” condition is produced from the ingot without any subsequent controlled amount of cold working or
thermal treatment. There is, consequently, a variable amount of strain hardening, depending upon the thickness
of the section.

For heat-treatable aluminum alloys, the mechanical properties are obtained by heat treating to a suitable temperature, holding at that temperature long enough to allow the alloying constituent to enter into solid
solution, and then quenching to hold the constituent in solution. The metal is left in a supersaturated, unstable state and is then age hardened either by natural aging at room temperature or by artificial aging at some elevated temperature.