Composite aircraft repair

As Boeing delivers its first 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’ A350 XWB starts to take shape, in the November/December issue of Reinforced Plastics we take a look at the progress of another new aircraft model incorporating significant amounts of composites – Bombardier’s CSeries.

Bombardier has not followed the composite fuselage route that Boeing and Airbus have taken for the 787 and A350; it has specified aluminium-lithium for the majority of the CSeries’ fuselage.

The issue of repair is one factor in Bombardier’s choice of metal over composite. The narrowbody CSeries is a high-cycle aircraft that will be closer to the ground than a widebody and subject to more damage caused by ground support equipment. Such damage can be easily identified and repaired in metal using standard techniques.

Boeing's 787 is the first mostly composite large commercial aircraft to undergo the certification process. In August 2011, the FAA and EASA certified the 787. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review FAA's and EASA's certification processes and FAA's oversight of the composite aircraft once they enter service.

In a report issued in September 2011, GAO identified four key safety-related concerns with the repair and maintenance of composites in commercial aircraft:

  • limited information on the behaviour of aircraft composite structures;
  • technical issues related to the unique properties of composite materials;
  • standardisation of repair materials and techniques; and
  • training and awareness.

FAA is taking action to help address these repair and maintenance concerns, but GAO concludes that, “until these composite airplanes enter service, it is unclear if these actions will be sufficient.”