Metal corrosion is the deterioration of the metal by chemical or electrochemical attack and can take place internally as well as on the surface. As in the rotting of wood, this deterioration may change the smooth surface, weaken the interior, or damage or loosen adjacent parts.

Water or water vapor containing salt combine with oxygen in the atmosphere to produce the main source of corrosion in aircraft. Aircraft operating in a marine environment or in areas where the atmosphere contains industrial fumes which are corrosive are particularly susceptible to corrosive attacks.

Corrosion can cause eventual structural failure if left unchecked. The appearance of the corrosion varies with the metal. On aluminum alloys and magnesium it appears as surface pitting and etching, often combined with a grey or white powdery deposit. On copper and copper alloys the corrosion forms a greenish film; on steel a reddish rust. When the grey, white, green, or reddish deposits are removed, each of the surfaces may appear etched and pitted, depending upon the length of exposure and severity of attack. If these surface pits are not too deep, they may not significantly alter the strength of the metal; however, the pits may become sites for crack development. Some types of corrosion can travel beneath surface coatings and can spread until the part fails.

Types of Corrosion

There are two general classifications of corrosion which cover most of the specific forms. These are direct chemical attack and electrochemical attack. In both types of corrosion the metal is converted into a metallic compound such as an oxide, hydroxide, or sulfate. The corrosion process always involves two simultaneous changes: The metal that is attacked or oxidized suffers what may be called anodic change, and the corrosive agent is reduced and may be considered as undergoing cathodic change.

Direct Chemical Attack

Direct chemical attack, or pure chemical corrosion, is an attack resulting from a direct exposure of a bare surface to caustic liquid or gaseous agents. Unlike electrochemical attack where the anodic and cathodic changes may be taking place a measurable distance apart, the changes in direct chemical attack are occurring simultaneously at the same point. The most common agents causing direct chemical attack on aircraft are: (1) Spilled battery acid or fumes from batteries; (2) residual flux deposits resulting from inadequately cleaned, welded, brazed, or soldered joints; and (3) entrapped caustic cleaning solutions. Spilled battery acid is becoming less of a problem with the advent of aircraft using nickel-cadmium batteries which are usually closed units. The use of these closed units lessens the hazards of acid spillage and battery fumes.

Many types of fluxes used in brazing, soldering, and welding are corrosive and they chemically attack the metals or alloys with which they are used. Therefore, it is important that residual flux be removed from the metal surface immediately after the joining operation. Flux residues are hygroscopic in nature; that is, they are capable of absorbing moisture, and unless carefully removed, tend to cause severe pitting.

Caustic cleaning solutions in concentrated form should be kept tightly capped and as far from aircraft as possible. Some cleaning solutions used in corrosion removal are, in themselves, potentially corrosive agents, and particular attention should be directed toward their complete removal after use on aircraft. Where entrapment of the cleaning solution is likely to occur, a noncorrosive cleaning agent should be used even though it is less efficient.

Electrochemical Attack

An electrochemical attack may be likened chemically to the electrolytic reaction which takes place in electroplating, anodizing, or in a dry cell battery. The reaction in this corrosive attack requires a medium, usually water, which is capable of conducting a tiny current of electricity. When a metal comes in contact with a corrosive agent and is also connected by a liquid or gaseous path through which electrons may flow, corrosion begins as the metal decays by oxidation. During the attack, the quantity of corrosive agent is reduced and, if not renewed or removed, may completely react with the metal (become neutralized). Different areas of the same metal surface have varying levels of electrical potential and if connected by a conductor, such as salt water, will set up a series of corrosion cells and corrosion will commence.

All metals and alloys are electrically active and have a specific electrical potential in a given chemical environment. The constituents in an alloy also have specific electrical potentials which are generally different from each other. Exposure of the alloy surface to a conductive, corrosive medium causes the more active metal to become anodic and the less active metal to become cathodic, thereby establishing conditions for corrosion. These are called local cells. The greater the different in electrical potential between the two metals, the greater will be the severity of a corrosive attack, if the proper conditions are allowed to develop.

As can be seen, the conditions for these corrosion reactions are a conductive fluid and metals having a difference in potential. If, by regular cleaning and surface refinishing, the medium is removed and the minute electrical circuit eliminated, corrosion cannot occur; this is the basis for effective corrosion control.

The electrochemical attack is responsible for most forms of corrosion on aircraft structure and component parts.