Wood Aircraft Construction and Repairs (Part Two)

in Aircraft Wood and Structural Repair

Wood Condition

Wood decay and dry rot are usually easy to detect. Decay may be evident as either a discoloration or a softening of the wood. Dry rot is a term loosely applied to many types of decay, but especially to a condition that, in an advanced stage, permits the wood to be crushed to a dry powder. The term is actually a misnomer for any decay, since all fungi require considerable moisture for growth.


Dark discolorations of the wood or gray stains running along the grain are indicative of water penetration. If such discoloration cannot be removed by light scraping, replace the part. Disregard local staining of the wood by dye from a synthetic adhesive hardener.

In some instances where water penetration is suspected, a few screws removed from the area in question reveal, by their degree of corrosion, the condition of the surrounding joint. [Figure 6-7]

Figure 6-7. Checking a glued joint for water penetration.

Figure 6-7. Checking a glued joint for water penetration. [click image to enlarge]

Another method of detecting water penetration is to remove the bolts holding the fittings at spar root-end joints, aileron hinge brackets, etc. Corrosion on the surface of such bolts and wood discoloration provide a useful indication of water penetration.

Plain brass screws are normally used for reinforcing glued wooden members. For hardwoods, such as mahogany or ash, steel screws may be used. Unless specified by the aircraft manufacturer, replace removed screws with new screws of identical length, but one gauge larger in diameter.

Inspection experience with a particular type of aircraft provides insight to the specific areas most prone to water penetration and moisture entrapment. Wooden aircraft are more prone to the damaging effects of water, especially without the protection of covered storage. Control system openings, fastener holes, cracks or breaks in the finish, and the interfaces of metal fittings and the wood structure are points that require additional attention during an inspection. Additionally, windshield and window frames, the area under the bottom of entrance and cargo doors, and the lower sections of the wing and fuselage are locations that require detailed inspections for water damage and corrosion on all aircraft.

The condition of the fabric covering on plywood surfaces provides an indication of the condition of the wood underneath. If there is any evidence of poor adhesion, cracks in the fabric, or swelling of the wood, remove the fabric to allow further inspection. The exposed surface shows water penetration by the existence of dark gray streaks along the grain and dark discoloration at ply joints or screw holes.

Cracks in wood spars are often hidden under metal fittings or metal rib flanges and leading edge skins. Any time a reinforcement plate exists that is not feathered out on its ends, a stress riser exists at the ends of the plate. A failure of the primary structure can be expected at this point. [Figure 6-8]

Figure 6-8. Areas likely to incur structural damage.

Figure 6-8. Areas likely to incur structural damage.

As part of the inspection, examine the structure for other defects of a mechanical nature, including any location where bolts secure fittings that take load-carrying members, or where the bolts are subject to landing or shear loads. Remove the bolts and examine the holes for elongation or surface crushing of the wood fibers. It is important to ensure the bolts are a good fit in the holes. Check for evidence of bruises or crushing of the structural member, which can be caused by overtorquing of the bolts.

Check all metal fittings that are attached to a wood structure for looseness, corrosion, cracks, or bending. Areas of particular concern are strut attach fittings, spar butt fittings, aileron and flap hinges, jury strut fittings, compression struts, control cable pulley brackets, and landing gear fittings. All exposed end grain wood, particularly the spar butts, should be inspected for cracking or checking.

Inspect structural members for compression failures, which is indicated by rupture across the wood fibers. This is a serious defect that can be difficult to detect. If a compression failure is suspected, a flashlight beam shown along the member, and running parallel to the grain, will assist in revealing it. The surface will appear to have minute ridges or lines running across the grain. Particular attention is necessary when inspecting any wooden member that has been subjected to abnormal bending or compression loads during a hard landing. If undetected, compression failures of the spar may result in structural failure of the wing during flight. [Figure 6-9]

Figure 6-9. Pronounced compression failure in wood beam.

Figure 6-9. Pronounced compression failure in wood beam.

When a member has been subjected to an excessive bending load, the failure appears on the surface that has been compressed. The surface subject to tension normally shows no defects. In the case of a member taking an excessive direct compression load, the failure is apparent on all surfaces. The front and rear spars should be checked for longitudinal cracks at the ends of the plywood reinforcement plates where the lift struts attach. [Figure 6-8] Check the ribs on either side of the strut attach points for cracks where the cap strips pass over and under the spars, and for missing or loose rib-to-spar attach nails. All spars, those in the wing(s) and empennage, should be inspected on the face and top surface for compression cracks. A borescope can be utilized by accessing existing inspection holes.

Various mechanical methods can be employed to enhance the visual inspection of wood structures. Tapping the subject area with a light plastic hammer or screwdriver handle should produce a sharp solid sound. If the suspected area sounds hollow and dull, further inspection is warranted. Use a sharp metal awl or thin-bladed screwdriver to probe the area. The wood structure should be solid and firm. If the area is soft and mushy, the wood is rotted and disassembly and repair of the structure is necessary.