Aircraft Metals

Knowledge and understanding of the uses, strengths, limitations, and other characteristics of structural metals is vital to properly construct and maintain any equipment, especially airframes. In aircraft maintenance and repair, even a slight deviation from design specification, or the substitution of inferior materials, may result in the loss of both lives and equipment. The use of unsuitable materials can readily erase the finest craftsmanship. The selection of the correct material for a specific repair job demands familiarity with the most common physical properties of various metals.

Properties of Metals

Of primary concern in aircraft maintenance are such general properties of metals and their alloys as hardness, malleability, ductility, elasticity, toughness, density, brittleness, fusibility, conductivity contraction and expansion, and so forth. These terms are explained to establish a basis for further discussion of structural metals.


Hardness refers to the ability of a material to resist abrasion, penetration, cutting action, or permanent distortion. Hardness may be increased by cold working the metal and, in the case of steel and certain aluminum alloys, by heat treatment. Structural parts are often formed from metals in their soft state and are then heat treated to harden them so that the finished shape will be retained. Hardness and strength are closely associated properties of metals.


One of the most important properties of a material is strength. Strength is the ability of a material to resist deformation. Strength is also the ability of a material to resist stress without breaking. The type of load or stress on the material affects the strength it exhibits.


Density is the weight of a unit volume of a material. In aircraft work, the specified weight of a material per cubic inch is preferred since this figure can be used in determining the weight of a part before actual manufacture. Density is an important consideration when choosing a material to be used in the design of a part in order to maintain the proper weight and balance of the aircraft.


A metal which can be hammered, rolled, or pressed into various shapes without cracking, breaking, or leaving some other detrimental effect, is said to be malleable. This property is necessary in sheet metal that is worked into curved shapes, such as cowlings, fairings, or wingtips. Copper is an example of a malleable metal.


Ductility is the property of a metal which permits it to be permanently drawn, bent, or twisted into various shapes without breaking. This property is essential for metals used in making wire and tubing. Ductile metals are greatly preferred for aircraft use because of their ease of forming and resistance to failure under shock loads. For this reason, aluminum alloys are used for cowl rings, fuselage and wing skin, and formed or extruded parts, such as ribs, spars, and bulkheads. Chrome molybdenum steel is also easily formed into desired shapes. Ductility is similar to malleability.


Elasticity is that property that enables a metal to return to its original size and shape when the force which causes the change of shape is removed. This property is extremely valuable because it would be highly undesirable to have a part permanently distorted after an applied load was removed. Each metal has a point known as the elastic limit, beyond which it cannot be loaded without causing permanent distortion. In aircraft construction, members and parts are so designed that the maximum loads to which they are subjected will not stress them beyond their elastic limits. This desirable property is present in spring steel.

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