ARCHIVED - Better Aircraft Safety Standards Being Developed by Using a Science-Based Approach

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May 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

Aging Aircraft Test Vehicle used for corrosion research and other aging aircraft investigations
Aging Aircraft Test Vehicle used for corrosion research and other aging aircraft investigations

How safe is any given airplane? Safety ultimately depends how the aircraft is designed, tested and maintained. Age and weathering can also affect aircraft safety, according to the Aging Aircraft team at the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC-IAR). In collaboration with researchers worldwide, the Aging Aircraft team is working to determine how age and the environment affect aircraft components and materials. This research should help aircraft designers and maintenance crews take a more scientific approach to aircraft care.

"The objective for the Aging Aircraft Program is to anticipate what could potentially happen to aircraft as they age," said Dr. Nick Bellinger, Leader of the Structures Group at the NRC-IAR. This is challenging when design, materials, manufacturing processes, wear and tear, hours in flight, environmental and age-related degradation all have to be taken into account. "When an aircraft is initially designed, it goes through large-scale tests. Based on those tests, they can tell where cracks are going to form over the life of the aircraft," indicated Bellinger. "But when they do that, they don't include any sort of environmental degradation."

Exfoliation, or the loss of layers of metal, from the upper skin of an aircraft's wing under experimentally induced stress.
Exfoliation, or the loss of layers of metal, from the upper skin of an aircraft's wing under experimentally induced stress.

A team of NRC-IAR researchers realized that a more comprehensive approach to assessing aircraft safety was needed. They developed the Holistic Structural Integrity Process (HOLSIP) to provide an evidence-based approach to aircraft safety. "HOLSIP is a new safe-life paradigm that will allow you to more accurately determine when you need to inspect different components," Bellinger explained. "We do analyses of the aircraft to look at what effect corrosion or age degradation has, which may change where you're looking." HOLSIP is a collaborative project involving the University of Utah's Dr. David Hoeppner and Dr. Craig Brooks of Analytical Processes and Engineering Solutions of Missouri. Each year NRC co-hosts a workshop to discuss aircraft safety with a few of the world's top aerospace safety researchers. The workshop this March focused on the nucleation, or very beginning, of crack formation in aircraft components.

HOLSIP and other analytical tools developed by the NRC team were disseminated to the aerospace community at the 2005 Aging Aircraft Conference held last February in Palm Springs, California. "We had a booth that concentrated on aging aircraft and the technologies and methodologies we have developed to help people assess what's going on in their aircraft," added Bellinger. HOLSIP is currently being used by National Defence Departments from England, Australia, the United States and Canada. Other potential users of these tools include aircraft designers and maintenance companies.

"Aircraft structural integrity management that considers the individual and combined effects of overload, fatigue, and accidental/environmental damage is our current policy for military aircraft in the UK and the aim of our future research. In developing this approach, we recognise the significant contribution and assistance of NRC Canada."

R.B. Eckersley
UK Ministry of Defence

"Aircraft are being used longer than anticipated mostly because of the cost of replacement," said Bellinger. "If they find damage they didn't anticipate, they can use this methodology to determine what to do. 'Do we repair it, can we leave it and if we have to replace the component, how much longer will it last given this type of damage can happen again?'"

NRC is working with industry and government collaborators to deal with the whole range of aging aircraft issues, including corrosion and fatigue damage. By developing mathematical models and practical tools to predict and evaluate aircraft safety, NRC researchers are hoping to shift the aerospace industry away from a 'find-it-and-fix-it' approach to a more proactive maintenance philosophy. They believe that this approach will save time, reduce costs and ultimately improve aircraft safety.

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