Food service employees working on an airport ramp at a major airport today wouldn't be expected to know that the graceful winglets on a Boeing 737 are metal on the leading edge only and mostly composite elsewhere. As such, if the workers mistakenly bump the middle of the winglet and there is no dent, will they also assume there is no damage?
That question began bothering US Federal Aviation Administration safety officials in 2004 as the aviation industry began touting the virtues of the next-generation widebody aircraft, the mostly composite aircraft that became known as Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Soon after the agency gathered more than 100 of the world's composite experts at Boeing's Longacre site in Seattle for a workshop to decide what the industry needed to know about working around these new and exotic airframes, says Curtis Davies, research manager in the Advanced Materials in Structures group at the FAA's technical centre. The knowledge will also come in useful with the increasing share of composites in today's aircraft, as evidenced by the proliferation of composite winglets. While metal will typically show damage in the form of a dent, a composite material may look perfectly fine on the surface while sustaining structural damage beneath.
After more than three years work, the FAA is ready to distribute the fruits of its labour - a composites maintenance and repair awareness course that targets ramp workers as well as maintenance, repair and overhaul employees, FAA inspectors, aircraft manufacturers and others.
Developed by Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Washington under a co-operative agreement with the FAA, the course has a two-day web-based prelude designed for the uninitiated, followed by a five-day in-person main segment. Edmonds is an FAA centre of excellence for advanced materials for transport aircraft structures. There will also be a special version of the course developed for FAA air safety inspectors that has "added content to make sure they know how awareness fits into the regulations and what specific areas they should look at during inspections", says Davies.
"It's not designed to teach anyone how to make a repair or do maintenance," he says about the main course. "The five days is going to get them to the point where they know what fibre and resin is. They'll know the whole process of dealing with maintenance on composite structures."