Wood Aircraft Construction and Repairs (Part One)

in Aircraft Wood and Structural Repair

The information presented in this chapter is general in nature and should not be regarded as a substitute for specific instructions contained in the aircraft manufacturer’s maintenance and repair manuals. Methods of construction vary greatly with different types of aircraft, as do the various repair and maintenance procedures required to keep them airworthy.

When specific manufacturer’s manuals and instructions are not available, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular (AC) 43.13-1, Acceptable Methods, Techniques, and Practices—Aircraft Inspection and Repair, can be used as reference for inspections and repairs. The AC details in the first paragraph, Purpose, the criteria necessary for its use. In part, it stipulates that the use of the AC is acceptable to the FAA for the inspection and minor repair of nonpressurized areas of civil aircraft.

It also specifies that the repairs identified in the AC may also be used as a basis for FAA approval of major repairs when listed in block 8 of FAA Form 337, Major Repair and Alteration, when:

  1. The user has determined that it is appropriate to the product being repaired;
  2. It is directly applicable to the repair being made; and
  3. It is not contrary to manufacturer’s data.

Certificated mechanics that have the experience of working on wooden aircraft are becoming rare. Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) part 65 states in part that a certificated mechanic may not perform any work for which he or she is rated unless he or she has performed the work concerned at an earlier date. This means that if an individual does not have the previous aviation woodworking experience performing the repair on an aircraft, regulation requires a certificated and appropriately rated mechanic or repairman who has had previous experience in the operation concerned to supervise that person.

The ability to inspect wood structures and recognize defects (dry rot, compression failures, etc.) can be learned through experience and instruction from knowledgeable certificated mechanics and appropriately qualified technical instructors.

Inspection of Wood Structures

To properly inspect an aircraft constructed or comprised of wood components, the aircraft must be dry. It should be placed in a dry, well-ventilated hanger with all inspection covers, access panels, and removable fairings opened and removed. This allows interior sections and compartments to thoroughly dry. Wet, or even damp, wood causes swelling and makes it difficult to make a proper determination of the condition of the glue joints.

If there is any doubt that the wood is dry, a moisture meter should be utilized to verify the percentage of moisture in the structure. Nondestructive meters are available that check moisture without making holes in the surface. The ideal range is 8–12 percent, with any reading over 20 percent providing an environment for the growth of fungus in the wood.

External and Internal Inspection

The inspection should begin with an examination of the external surface of the aircraft. This provides a general assessment of the overall condition of the wood and structure. The wings, fuselage, and empennage should be inspected for undulation, warping, or any other disparity from the original shape. Where the wings, fuselage, or empennage structure and skins form stressed structures, no departure from the original contour or shape is permissible. [Figure 6-3]

Figure 6-3. Cross sectional view of a stressed skin structure.

Figure 6-3. Cross sectional view of a stressed skin structure. [click image to enlarge]

Where light structures using single plywood covering are concerned, some slight sectional undulation or bulging between panels may be permissible if the wood and glue are sound. However, where such conditions exist, a careful check must be made of the attachment of the plywood to its supporting structure. A typical example of a distorted single plywood structure is illustrated in Figure 6-4.

Figure 6-4. A distorted single plywood structure.

Figure 6-4. A distorted single plywood structure. [click image to enlarge]

The contours and alignment of leading and trailing edges are of particular importance. A careful check should be made for any deviation from the original shape. Any distortion of these light plywood and spruce structures is indicative of deterioration, and a detailed internal inspection has to be made for security of these parts to the main wing structure. If deterioration is found in these components, the main wing structure may also be affected.

Splits in the fabric covering on plywood surfaces must be investigated to ascertain whether the plywood skin beneath is serviceable. In all cases, remove the fabric and inspect the plywood, since it is common for a split in the plywood skin to initiate a similar defect in the protective fabric covering.

Although a preliminary inspection of the external structure can be useful in assessing the general condition of the aircraft, note that wood and glue deterioration can often take place inside a structure without any external indications. Where moisture can enter a structure, it seeks the lowest point, where it stagnates and promotes rapid deterioration. A musty or moldy odor apparent as you remove the access panels during the initial inspection is a good indication of moisture, fungal growth, and possible decay.

Glue failure and wood deterioration are often closely related, and the inspection of glued joints must include an examination of the adjacent wood structure. NOTE: Water need not be present for glue deterioration to take place.

The inspection of a complete aircraft for glue or wood deterioration requires scrutiny of parts of the structure that may be known, or suspected, trouble spots. In many instances, these areas are boxed in or otherwise inaccessible. Considerable dismantling may be required. It may be necessary to cut access holes in some of the structures to facilitate the inspection. Do such work only in accordance with approved drawings or instructions in the maintenance manual for the aircraft concerned. If drawings and manuals are not available, engineering review may be required before cutting access holes.

Glued Joint Inspection

The inspection of glued joints in wooden aircraft structures presents considerable difficulties. Even where access to the joint exists, it is still difficult to positively assess the integrity of the joint. Keep this in mind when inspecting any glue joint.

Some common factors in premature glue deterioration include:

  • Chemical reactions of the glue caused by aging or moisture, extreme temperatures, or a combination of these factors, and
  • Mechanical forces caused mainly by wood shrinkage, and
  • Development of fungal growths.

An aircraft painted in darker colors experiences higher skin temperatures and heat buildup within its structure. Perform a more detailed inspection on a wooden aircraft structure immediately beneath the upper surfaces for signs of deteriorating adhesives.

Aircraft that are exposed to large cyclic changes of temperature and humidity are especially prone to wood shrinkage that may lead to glue joint deterioration. The amount of movement of a wooden member due to these changes varies with the size of each member, the rate of growth of the tree from which it was cut, and the way the wood was converted in relation to the grain.

This means that two major structural members joined to each other by glue are not likely to have identical characteristics. Over a period of time, differential loads are transmitted across the glue joint because the two members do not react identically. This imposes stresses in the glue joint that can normally be accommodated when the aircraft is new and for some years afterwards. However, glue tends to deteriorate with age, and stresses at the glued joints may cause failure of the joints. This is a fact even when the aircraft is maintained under ideal conditions.

The various cuts of lumber from a tree have tendency to shrink and warp in the direction(s) indicated in the yellow area around each cut in Figure 6-5.

Figure 6-5. Effects of shrinkage on the various shapes during drying from the green condition.

Figure 6-5. Effects of shrinkage on the various shapes during drying from the green condition.

When checking a glue line (the edge of the glued joint) for condition, all protective coatings of paint should be removed by careful scraping. It is important to ensure that the wood is not damaged during the scraping operation. Scraping should cease immediately when the wood is revealed in its natural state and the glue line is clearly discernible. At this point in the inspection, it is important that the surrounding wood is dry; otherwise, you will get a false indication of the integrity of the glue line due to swelling of the wood and subsequent closing of the joint.

Inspect the glue line using a magnifying glass. Where the glue line tends to part, or where the presence of glue cannot be detected or is suspect, probe the glue line with a thin feeler gauge. If any penetration is observed, the joint is defective. The structure usually dictates the feeler gauge thickness, but use the thinnest feeler gauge whenever possible. The illustration indicates the points a feeler gauge should probe. [Figure 6-6]

Figure 6-6. Inspection points for laminated glue joints.

Figure 6-6. Inspection points for laminated glue joints. [click image to enlarge]

Pressure exerted on a joint either by the surrounding structure or by metal attachment devices, such as bolts or screws, can cause a false appearance of the glue condition. The joint must be relieved of this pressure before the glue line inspection is performed.

A glued joint may fail in service as a result of an accident or because of excessive mechanical loads having been imposed upon it. Glued joints are generally designed to take shear loads. If a joint is expected to take tension loads, it is secured by a number of bolts or screws in the area of tension loading. In all cases of glued joint failure, whatever the direction of loading, there should be a fine layer of wood fibers adhering to the glue. The presence of fibers usually indicates that the joint itself is not at fault.

Examination of the glue under magnification that does not reveal any wood fibers, but shows an imprint of the wood grain, indicates that the cause of the failure was the predrying of the glue before applying pressure during the manufacture of the joint. If the glue exhibits an irregular appearance with star-shaped patterns, this is an indication that precuring of the glue occurred before pressure was applied, or that pressure had been incorrectly applied or maintained on the joint. If there is no evidence of wood fiber adhesion, there may also be glue deterioration.