Nonmetallic Aircraft Materials – Part Five (Seals-Part One)

in Aircraft Materials Processes and Hardware

Seals are used to prevent fluid from passing a certain point, as well as to keep air and dirt out of the system in which they are used. The increased use of hydraulics and pneumatics in aircraft systems has created a need for packings and gaskets of varying characteristics and design to meet the many variations of operating speeds and temperatures to which they are subjected. No one style or type of seal is satisfactory for all installations. Some of the reasons for this are: (1) pressure at which the system operates, (2) the type fluid used in the system, (3) the metal finish and the clearance between adjacent parts, and (4) the type motion (rotary or reciprocating), if any. Seals are divided into three main classes: (1) packings, (2) gaskets, and (3) wipers.


Packings are made of synthetic or natural rubber. They are generally used as “running seals,” that is, in units that contain moving parts, such as actuating cylinders, pumps, selector valves, and so forth. Packings are made in the form of O-rings, V-rings, and U-rings, each designed for a specific purpose. [Figure 5-16]

Figure 5-16. Packing rings.

Figure 5-16. Packing rings.

O-Ring Packings

O-ring packings are used to prevent both internal and external leakage. This type of packing ring seals effectively in both directions and is the type most commonly used. In installations subject to pressures above 1,500 psi, backup rings are used with O-rings to prevent extrusion.

When an O-ring packing is subjected to pressure from both sides, as in actuating cylinders, two backup rings must be used (one on either side of the O-ring). When an O-ring is subject to pressure on only one side, a single backup ring is generally used. In this case, the backup ring is always placed on the side of the O-ring away from the pressure.

The materials from which O-rings are manufactured have been compounded for various operating conditions, temperatures, and fluids. An O-ring designed specifically for use as a static (stationary) seal probably will not do the job when installed on a moving part, such as a hydraulic piston. Most O-rings are similar in appearance and texture, but their characteristics may differ widely. An O-ring is useless if it is not compatible with the system fluid and operating temperature.

Advances in aircraft design have necessitated new O-ring compositions to meet changed operating conditions. Hydraulic O-rings were originally established under AN specification numbers (6227, 6230, and 6290) for use in MIL-H-5606 fluid at temperatures ranging from −65 °F to +160 °F. When new designs raised operating temperatures to a possible 275 °F, more compounds were developed and perfected.

Recently, a compound was developed that offered improved low temperature performance without sacrificing high temperature performance, rendering the other series obsolete. This superior material was adopted in the MS28775 series. This series is now the standard for MIL-H-5606 systems in which the temperature may vary from −65 °F to +275 °F.

Manufacturers provide color coding on some O-rings, but this is not a reliable or complete means of identification. The color coding system does not identify sizes, but only system fluid or vapor compatibility and in some cases the manufacturer. Color codes on O-rings that are compatible with MIL-H-5606 fluid will always contain blue, but may also contain red or other colors. Packings and gaskets suitable for use with Skydrol fluid will always be coded with a green stripe, but may also have a blue, grey, red, green, or yellow dot as a part of the color code. Color codes on O-rings that are compatible with hydrocarbon fluid will always contain red, but will never contain blue. A colored stripe around the circumference indicates that the O-ring is a boss gasket seal. The color of the stripe indicates fluid compatibility: red for fuel, blue for hydraulic fluid.

The coding on some rings is not permanent. On others it may be omitted due to manufacturing difficulties or interference with operation. Furthermore, the color coding system provides no means to establish the age of the O-ring or its temperature limitations.

Because of the difficulties with color coding, O-rings are available in individual hermetically sealed envelopes, labeled with all pertinent data. When selecting an O-ring for installation, the basic part number on the sealed envelope provides the most reliable compound identification.

Although an O-ring may appear perfect at first glance, slight surface flaws may exist. These flaws are often capable of preventing satisfactory O-ring performance under the variable operating pressures of aircraft systems; therefore, O-rings should be rejected for flaws that will affect their performance. Such flaws are difficult to detect, and one aircraft manufacturer recommends using a 4 power magnifying glass with adequate lighting to inspect each ring before it is installed.

By rolling the ring on an inspection cone or dowel, the inner diameter surface can also be checked for small cracks, particles of foreign material, or other irregularities that will cause leakage or shorten the life of the O-ring. The slight stretching of the ring when it is rolled inside out will help to reveal some defects not otherwise visible.