New Aircraft Materials Put Ground Support Procedures To the Test

Composites, titanium and aluminum alloys help airlines move more passengers while burning less fuel. But how will the new materials stand up to routine ground handling operations?


Others in the industry have also commented on the provision – or lack of it – of tools and training across the industry. The relevant equipment and skill set for composite repair may not be available at all outstations for some time to come, delaying aircraft repairs.

The manufacturers refute such arguments. Boeing cites the 787, designed from the outset to be especially robust in damage-prone areas, such as passenger and cargo doors.

Fleming also insists it can be repaired in exactly the same way as older models.

“The ability to perform bolted repairs in composite structure is service-proven on the 777 and offers comparable repair times and skills as employed on metallic airplanes,” he says. “By design, bolted repairs in composite structure can be permanent and damage-tolerant, just as they can be on a metal structure.”

There is also the option to perform bonded composite repairs, which offer improved aerodynamic and aesthetic finish.

Although a typical bonded repair may require 24 or more hours of airplane downtime, Boeing has developed a new line of maintenance repair that requires less than an hour to apply.

Improvements in nondestructive testing methods, such as using x-rays and ultrasonic scanning, will also pave the way forward. Lufthansa Technik is one of a number of companies looking at providing a comprehensive, mobile service for repairing composite material.

TRAINING TIME

The debate is unlikely to go quiet any time soon.

In the meantime, plenty of research is being done. The Commercial Aircraft Composite Repair Committee is an industry-wide effort to fine-tune work on composite materials. Both Boeing and Airbus are involved

But the best knowledge will come when composites have a flying history comparable to metals.

Until then, some robust training schedules for inspectors, technicians and engineers are the industry’s best solution.

At Boeing, during training for inspectors, the students learn how to perform an inspection and analysis to make a “fix or fly” judgment on 787 composite damage. Technicians learn how to carry out repairs and engineers learn how to design repairs.

There is no doubt that composite-laden aircraft are safe and correctly certified to fly.

But for ground handlers, the jury is still out as to how they will react to the minor bumps of daily ground operations.

The service level agreements of the future could look very different indeed.

Graham Newton is a professional writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience contributing to international aviation publications, including Airlines International, the official Magazine of the International Air Transport Association.

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