Why Boeing is right about composites

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.

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5 Responses to Why Boeing is right about composites

  1. FleetBuzz.com 28 September, 2007 at 6:38 pm #


    As I mention in my blog, the entire episode stinks to high heaven of poor opportunism.

    Where were Weldons concerns after the Sonic Crusier was scrapped?

    Where were the concerns when the 7E7 was launched?

    For someone like him who…coupled with the fact he is not a recognised materials specialist or ever had ANY interaction on the 787 tells us all we need to know about this man.

    And shame on Dan Rather for not once mentioning the A350′s mooted higher composite content and the “risks” that may bring.

  2. Rob 28 September, 2007 at 6:48 pm #

    Well Boeing777, thanks for your comment, you’ve got lots of passion there. Maybe we’ll get a response from Mr Rather?

  3. FleetBuzz.com 28 September, 2007 at 9:24 pm #

    Rob, thanks for the reply and to the Flight Global team for allowing the opportunity to display my post.

    I would only add this:

    Over 730 Boeing 787′s ordered- the fastest selling airplane ever.

    Nearly 50 airline customers would NOT sacrifice passenger safety if the 787 was unsafe.

    I just feel sickened by the excessive coverage this topic has received. I would equally be reviled if this were about the A350.

    Neither Airbus or Boeing build unsafe airplanes. For a former employee to state otherwise points to an ulterior and sinister motive.

  4. layman 3 October, 2007 at 1:52 pm #

    I think that the maybe people are protesting too much. A lot of commentary has been used up to defend Boeing. They are a large company and are capable of defending themselves.
    I for one, will wait a few years before getting into a 787.
    Not because it is a Boeing, but, from my point of view – the 787 just stretches the envelope a bit too far for me to be comfortable. There are too many innovations and not enough past experience to use to mitigate any risks. Remember Comet 1?
    The Comet- 4 eventually realised the potential of that remarkable plane.
    I will wait for the later versions of the 787 – until then, rather safe than sorry.

  5. FleetBuzz.com 3 October, 2007 at 4:52 pm #

    Boeing serves no one’s interest by refuting unfounded and slanderous claims- not to mention adding fuel to the fire of all this “risk” talk – that is exactly what the likes of Weldon want.

    As for composites – they have been in use for a long time. To start worrying about them and their usage now plays right into the hands of those scaremongers.

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