Did you know that Aluminium makes up 75%-80% of a modern aircraft?!
The history of aluminium in the aerospace industry goes way back. In fact aluminium was used in aviation before airplanes had even been invented. In the late 19th century, the Count Ferdinand Zeppelin used aluminium to make the frames of his famous Zeppelin airships.
Aluminium is ideal for aircraft manufacture because it’s lightweight and strong. Aluminium is roughly a third the weight of steel, allowing an aircraft to carry more weight and or become more fuel efficient. Furthermore, aluminium’s high resistance to corrosion ensures the safety of the aircraft and its passengers.
Common Aerospace Aluminium Grades
2024 – Typically used in aircraft skins, cowls, aircraft structures. Also used in repair and restoration.
3003 – This aluminium sheet is widely used for cowls and baffle plating.
5052 – Commonly used to make fuel tanks. 5052 has excellent corrosion resistance (particularly in marine applications).
6061 – Typically used for aircraft landing mats and many other non-aviation structural end-uses.
7075 – Commonly used to strengthen aircraft structures. 7075 is a high-strength alloy and is one of the most common grades used in the aviation industry (next to 2024).
History of Aluminium in the Aerospace Industry
The Wright brothers
On December 17, 1903, the Wright brothers made the world’s first human flight with their airplane, the Wright Flyer.
At the time, automobile engines were very heavy and didn’t deliver enough power to achieve take off, so the Wright brothers built a special engine in which the cylinder block and other parts were made from aluminium.
As aluminium was not widely available and was prohibitively expensive, the airplane itself was made from a Sitka spruce and bamboo frame covered with canvas. Due to the low airspeeds and limited lift-generating capability of the plane, keeping the frame extremely lightweight was essential and wood was the only feasible material light enough to fly, yet strong enough to carry the required load.
It would take over a decade for the use of aluminium to become more widespread.
World War I
Wooden aircraft made their mark in the earliest days of aviation, but during World War I, lightweight aluminium began to replace wood as the essential component for aerospace manufacture.
In 1915 the German aircraft designer Hugo Junkers built the world’s first full metal aircraft; the Junkers J 1 monoplane. Its fuselage was made from an aluminium alloy that included copper, magnesium and manganese.
Golden Age of Aviation
The period between World War I and World War II came to be known as the Golden Age of Aviation
During the 1920s, Americans and Europeans competed in airplane racing, which led to innovations in design and performance. Biplanes were replaced by more streamlined monoplanes and there was a transition to all-metal frames made from aluminium alloys.
In 1925, the Ford Motor Co. went into the airline industry. Henry Ford designed the 4-AT, a three-engine, all-metal plane using corrugated aluminium. Dubbed “The Tin Goose”, it became an instant hit with passengers and airline operators.
By the mid-1930s, a new streamlined aircraft shape emerged, with tightly cowled multiple engines, retracting landing gear, variable-pitch propellers, and stressed-skin aluminium construction.
World War II
During World War II, aluminium was needed for numerous military applications – particularly the construction of aircraft frames – which caused aluminium production to soar.
The demand for aluminium was so great that in 1942, WOR-NYC broadcast a radio show “Aluminium for Defense” to encourage Americans to contribute scrap aluminium to the war effort. Aluminium recycling was encouraged, and “Tinfoil Drives” offered free movie tickets in exchange for aluminium foil balls.
In the period from July 1940 to August 1945, the U.S. produced a staggering 296,000 aircraft. More than half were made predominantly from aluminium. The U.S. aerospace industry was able to meet the needs of the American military, as well as American allies including Britain. At their peak in 1944, American aircraft plants were producing 11 planes every hour.
By the end of the war, America had the most powerful air force in the world.
The modern era
Since the end of the war, aluminium has become an integral part of aircraft manufacture. While the composition of the aluminium alloys has improved, the advantages of aluminium remain the same. Aluminium allows designers to build a plane that is as light as possible, can carry heavy loads, uses the least amount of fuel and is impervious to rust.
In modern aircraft manufacture, aluminium is used everywhere. The Concorde, which flew passengers at over twice the speed of sound for 27 years, was built with an aluminium skin.
The Boeing 737, the best-selling jet commercial airliner which has made air travel for the masses a reality, is 80% aluminium.
Today’s planes use aluminium in the fuselage, the wing panes, the rudder, the exhaust pipes, the door and floors, the seats, the engine turbines, and the cockpit instrumentation.
Aluminium is invaluable not just in airplanes but in spacecraft, where low weight coupled with maximum strength is even more essential. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, the Sputnik 1, which was made from an aluminium alloy.
All modern spacecraft are comprised of 50% to 90% aluminium alloy. Aluminium alloys have been used extensively on the Apollo spacecraft, the Skylab space station, the Space Shuttles and the International Space Station.
The Orion spacecraft – currently under development – is intended to allow human exploration of asteroids and Mars. The manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has chosen an aluminium-lithium alloy for Orion’s main structural components.
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