In this week’s issue of Flight International (28 September – 1 October) the apparent whistle blowing ex-Boeing engineer’s claims of crashworthiness issues with carbon fibre composites became a page six leading This Week story and the whole leader comment page was devoted to the argument. You may well ask, where was Flight, why wasn’t the magazine dealing with this issue sometime ago, perhaps when Boeing first spoke of a new airliner with a structure that was 50% composite?
And I wouldn’t be surprised if you had turned to those back issues under your desk (of course you’re all loyal subscribers reading this blog, I’m sure) and flicked through to the technology section, my section, and tried to find a story that highlighted this issue; but to no avail.
The reason why you wouldn’t find anything is simple, I spoke to a number of experts here in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and the answer came back, quite strongly, composites are just as good as metals when it comes to crashworthiness. Why not ask the US experts you may enquire?
Well Europe is pretty good at composites, Alenia Aeronautica is providing a very large chunk of the Boeing 787′s fuselage. That technology was developed through the European Union’s TANGO programme.
As a post-graduate engineer myself I was aware that even plastics, alone, are as strong as some metals and that carbon fibre composites do have very good mechanical strength when compared to their metallic counterparts.
So for me it was no great surprise there was no great flaw in the 787 fuselage and with a slightly disappointed sigh, all those years ago, I filed away my research, looked elsewhere for stories and left it to Boeing to explain why they had got the carbon fibre structures right.
Don’t get me wrong, there are issues with composites. You can’t use aluminium fasteners because they react with some composites’ resins, but that can be resolved by using a different metal or fibre glass interface, and some people have questions about how you detect internal damage and repair it. But none of that will stop me getting on a 787 in the years to come.
The real moral of this story is don’t believe what individuals say just because they appear to be experts. The ex-Boeing engineer may well have been senior but is he a composite materials expert? It is a bit like asking a throat doctor about your back problems. He’s got the general idea of how your spine works but don’t ask him for a diagnosis!
So don’t panic. I for one am looking forward to flying on the 787, and the Airbus A380 for that matter (everybody else in the office already seems to have been on it!), and one-day the Airbus A350 XWB, with its high composite structural content.