From Wood To Composites: How Aircraft Materials Have Changed Over The Years – by Dr. Omar Memon (Simple Flying – June 11, 2023)

Over a century ago, in December 1903, Wright Brothers’ first human-crewed flight took place onboard the Wright Flyer in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It was the first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air airplane. The aircraft was built using wood, wires, and fabric on significant components. Since that time, major advancements in aircraft structural materials have been noticed. This article highlights the evolution of airframe materials and critical developments in recent times.

The Wright Brothers’ era

Various types of wood, metal wires, and fabrics of varying densities were used to manufacture the Wright Flyer. The Wrights used spruce for straight parts of the wings, such as wing spars. The ash wood was used for curved surfaces, including the ribs of the wings. The wooden frame was covered with a finely-woven cotton cloth, sealed with paraffin-based canvas paint. The metal fittings on the airframe were made from steel.

Muslin fabric was used on upper and lower wing panels. The leading edges of the wings were wired with woven seams to hold the wires. The wing ribs protruded at multiple locations to be tied to the wire. A number of sections were sewn together on the bias to create the necessary “full” or “partial” seams.

To power the aircraft, a lightweight 12-hp (9 kW) gasoline engine was designed. The engine weighed approximately 180 lbs (82 kg) with a one-gallon (3.78 L) fuel tank. The engine’s core had a hard aluminum iron frame with cast iron pistons and a sprocket chain drive. Other parts of the engine were made from steel and cast iron, with the exception of the spark points, which contained platinum.

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