Monday, December 21, 2009

The End of the Aluminum Age

We're informed that the much heralded, oft-delayed and widely watched first flight of the Boeing 787, a/k/a Dreamliner went off

without a major hitch recently.

Sighs of relief all around, no? A bit of flag waving as well? You betcha, as Mrs. Palin says.

We're also reliably informed by a gentleman in the country of unimpeachable integrity (Saj) that the test flight of the second aircraft will take place tomorrow morning-all of which promises to accelerate the flight test schedule significantly.

It's rare when two aircraft are delivered to a flight test program in such a short time, and it speaks to Boeing's determination to ramp up the flight test program and thereby make up some lost marches. It also tells us that the flight test program is the first priority.

The Dreamliner, of course, represents a completely new departure for manufacturing large civil aircraft, being constructed largely of carbon fiber composite material, including the wings and other structural members.

In fact it's the first major advance in aircraft structure and coverings since aluminum skin and structure confounded the purveyors of dope and fab, plywood skinned, wooden wing stuff like the Curtiss Condor or the Fokker Triplane back in the thirties.

It's been rumored that the Ford Trimotor was a reverse engineered Fokker in corrugated aluminum, and so it may be. Reasonable minds may differ-although the resemblance to the things Dr. Junkers was doing at the time is more than coincidental.

Of course, as we have noted here in the past, we in this country do have a pretty good track record working with carbon fiber composite structures in large aircraft- albeit in military programs such as the F117 fighter and the B2 bomber-that spans the last twenty five years, none of which expertise was acknowledged by the competition.

There was plenty of "It'll never work", "You won't be able to maintain it in the field", "Our experts assure us it's unworkable" and similar canards from the usual suspects, to be followed shortly by "Well, we can of course show you impetuous colonials how real experts do it."

Well. It flew. Another one's flying tomorrow. There'll be more before 2012 or whenever the A350 emerges blinking in the watery sunlight of Toulouse. And they'll be piling up a record of revenue service by that time.

It was also significant to us here at the Dougloid Towers when the fellows at Vought in South Carolina-now part of Boeing-signed a check for the world's largest autoclave. They're committed to the technology, for good or for ill.

The only thing on the horizon that's even in the same ballpark is the proposed Airbus A350
which is not slated to fly until until 2012, barring any delays. The A350 as it is currently envisioned will be made up of carbon fiber panels mounted on structure where the 787's fuselage structure is monolithic. In the quest for weight reduction, this will prove to be lighter and thus stronger, pound for pound.

We're not fans of idle speculation here, but we think that the introduction of this technology will fundamentally rewrite the commercial aircraft construction and engineering book.

There will be problems to remedy as we've already seen, and there will also be serendipitous discoveries that will accrue to the benefit of American engineering genius-which has been getting a bad rap lately.

As Mark Twain once opined "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated." Words to live by? We think so.

Photo credits ASC Systems, Boeing,


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