Imagine that you are an established airplane manufacturer planning your next all-new airplane design. The project will cost many millions if you are going to build a light airplane, to many hundreds of millions, or even billions if it’s a jet. The big question is what to do about using composite materials to build most or all of the new design?
Looking at the history of certified composite airplanes is scary. Beech spent about $1 billion to develop and produce about 50 Starships. The airplane missed every weight and performance goal and the market for the exotic looking turboprop just didn’t exist.
Adam Aircraft is another worrisome example of composites gone wrong. The centerline thrust piston twin A500 also came out heavier than expected and was more costly to build. It was eventually certified but its payload and performance restrictions dried up what had been a promising market.
The situation at Boeing with the 787 being years behind schedule and who knows how many hundreds of millions over budget is the stuff of nightmares for executives who must decide what type of airplane to build next. The composite construction of the 787 is definitely not the only issue in development, but it is a major suspect in the delays to develop the first large jet made mostly from composites.
Beech has had better luck with the Beechjet and Hawker 4000 that use composite construction for the fuselage and aluminum for the wings and most other components. But even though those airplanes are in service, both jets took much longer and cost more to develop than expected.
Cirrus and Diamond have both succeeded in building airplanes almost entirely from composite materials, but their situation is different. Neither company had long-established procedures to design and build metal airframes, so they were not risking a change away from a successful past. For them composite construction was at the core, not a new risk. But still, the Cirrus and Diamond airplanes have not demonstrated significant, if any, weight advantage compared to similar-sized metal airframes. The composite airframes are very smooth, and have shapes that would be almost impossible to create in metal, but the weight savings that can be achieved in the laboratory haven’t survived the certification and manufacturing process.
Even kit makers have had fits and starts with composite construction. Thirty years ago it looked like aluminum kit planes were finished as we all believed building with fiberglass was quicker, easier, and lighter, and produced airplanes of superior performance. Somebody forgot to tell Dick VanGrunsven. As it turned out, the all-metal Vans RV series of kits has become more popular and successful than any family of kit planes in history with more than 7,000 kits completed and flying.
So if you’re the guy at big airplane company X who has to pull the trigger on a new composite or mostly composite design, the history of composite airplanes tells you to run the other way. But doing that is where the biggest risk resides.
At some point the promise of composite construction will become reality. Even if the potential weight savings are never fully realized, the reduction in parts count and labor during assembly will become real. Someday the idea of riveting together hundreds or even thousands of metal parts to form an airframe will seem as quaint as wrapping fabric over a maze of wood and metal tubes.
We have seen the disaster of the companies that got it wrong on composites. But another potential disaster looms for the company that gets it wrong and stays with metal too long. A successful new airplane design needs to endure in production for many years, even many decades. The perfect example is the Boeing 737 that continues to be one of the most popular airplanes in the world, even though the original design is nearing its 45th birthday. Boeing got it right in the 1960s and the 737 is helping to pay the bills for the issues the 787 has encountered in the new century.
That’s why every established airplane manufacturer is spending a bundle to study composite design and manufacturing. Even as metal airplanes roll off the assembly line, the bosses at airframe manufacturers know each new design must contain a greater extent of composite components to be competitive over the long term.
Learjet has pulled the trigger with its new model 85 that is pretty far along in development and will be made almost entirely of carbon fiber. Did Learjet get it right? That’s what worries other airplane manufacturing executives. If Learjet is correct – and the Boeing 787 eventually delivers on its promises – the other companies waited too long. But maybe Boeing and Learjet made the wrong call and like Beech went too much composite too soon. We won’t know who is correct for several years to come.
I bet the leaders of the big airplane companies see carbon fiber in their nightmares more than their dreams because one day somebody will get it right, and the others will be playing catch-up.