Nonmetallic Aircraft Materials – Part One (Wood and Plastics)

in Aircraft Materials Processes and Hardware

The use of magnesium, plastic, fabric, and wood in aircraft construction has nearly disappeared since the mid-1950s. Aluminum has also greatly diminished in use, from 80 percent of airframes in 1950 to about 15 percent aluminum and aluminum alloys today for airframe construction. Replacing those materials are nonmetallic aircraft materials, such as reinforced plastics and advanced composites.


The earliest aircraft were constructed of wood and cloth. Today, except for restorations and some home-built aircraft, very little wood is used in aircraft construction.


Plastics are used in many applications throughout modern aircraft. These applications range from structural components of thermosetting plastics reinforced with fiberglass to decorative trim of thermoplastic materials to windows.

Transparent Plastics

Transparent plastic materials used in aircraft canopies, windshields, windows and other similar transparent enclosures may be divided into two major classes or groups. These plastics are classified according to their reaction to heat. The two classes are: thermoplastic and thermosetting.

Thermoplastic materials will soften when heated and harden when cooled. These materials can be heated until soft, and then formed into the desired shape. When cooled, they will retain this shape. The same piece of plastic can be reheated and reshaped any number of times without changing the chemical composition of the materials.

Thermosetting plastics harden upon heating, and reheating has no softening effect. These plastics cannot be reshaped once being fully cured by the application of heat.

In addition to the above classes, transparent plastics are manufactured in two forms: monolithic (solid) and laminated. Laminated transparent plastics are made from transparent plastic face sheets bonded by an inner layer material, usually polyvinyl butyryl. Because of its shatter resistant qualities, laminated plastic is superior to solid plastics and is used in many pressurized aircraft.

Most of the transparent sheet used in aviation is manufactured in accordance with various military specifications. A new development in transparent plastics is stretched acrylic. Stretched acrylic is a type of plastic which, before being shaped, is pulled in both directions to rearrange its molecular structure. Stretched acrylic panels have a greater resistance to impact and are less subject to shatter; its chemical resistance is greater, edging is simpler, and crazing and scratches are less detrimental.

Individual sheets of plastic are covered with a heavy masking paper to which a pressure sensitive adhesive has been added. This paper helps to prevent accidental scratching during storage and handling. Be careful to avoid scratches and gouges which may be caused by sliding sheets against one another or across rough or dirty tables.

If possible, store sheets in bins which are tilted at approximately 10° from vertical. If they must be stored horizontally, piles should not be over 18 inches high, and small sheets should be stacked on the larger ones to avoid unsupported overhang. Store in a cool, dry place away from solvent fumes, heating coils, radiators, and steam pipes. The temperature in the storage room should not exceed 120 °F.

While direct sunlight does not harm acrylic plastic, it will cause drying and hardening of the masking adhesive, making removal of the paper difficult. If the paper will not roll off easily, place the sheet in an oven at 250 °F for 1 minute, maximum. The heat will soften the masking adhesive for easy removal of the paper.

If an oven is not available, remove hardened masking paper by softening the adhesive with aliphatic naphtha. Rub the masking paper with a cloth saturated with naphtha. This will soften the adhesive and free the paper from the plastic. Sheets so treated must be washed immediately with clean water, taking care not to scratch the surfaces.

Note: Aliphatic naphtha is not to be confused with aromatic naphtha and other dry cleaning solvents which have harmful effects on plastic. However, aliphatic naphtha is flammable and all precautions regarding the use of flammable liquids must be observed.