Aluminum has been instrumental in transforming any number of industries. This amazing metal has positively impacted sectors such as automotive, food and beverage, medical supplies, architecture, consumer electronics and more. There may not be any industry more closely identified with advanced aluminum alloys than the aerospace industry.
Aluminum is synonymous with airplane construction. It’s no secret that plane bodies are largely made from aluminum, but many other parts rely on aluminum as well due to its light weight and corrosion resistance, among other benefits. Even today’s spacecraft, both manned and unmanned, are turning to high-performance aluminum alloys to unlock the wonders of deep space exploration.
But did you know that the world’s first airplane used aluminum? That’s right, the Wright Brother’s initial voyage more than 100 years ago was made possible in part due to their use of aluminum. Today we’ll be looking at how the Wright Brothers utilized aluminum and how it has been indispensable to the advancement of human flight.
Aluminum and airplanes were developed at about the same time
When Orville and Wilbur Wright set about trying to create the first powered aircraft, they understood it was essential that it be as light as possible. Knowing what we know today, you might assume that meant they built the fuselage of their aircraft out of aluminum; this was not the case.
Aluminum was still a relatively new material at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, it was quite expensive and hard to come by in large quantities. Even though aluminum is the third most common element present in the Earth’s crust, it was extremely hard to access because its natural reactivity means it is nearly impossible to find aluminum in its native form. It was only in the late 1880’s that metallurgists and chemists finally developed an economically feasible method for extracting aluminum for industrial use.
Furthermore, the engine technology of the time was not yet ready to propel a metal aircraft off the ground, even one made entirely of aluminum. Instead, the body and wings of their first flyer were constructed from lightweight wood and fabric, an unthinkable material in today’s modern airplanes.
But even so, weight was still a key consideration, and in order to eliminate as much excess weight as possible, they turned to aluminum as the key material in their engine. This machine had four horizontal inline cylinders with a 4-inch bore and 4-inch stroke. While these were made from cast iron, they were placed inside a cast aluminum crankcase that created a water jacket around the cylinder barrels. By using aluminum, they ensured their engine would be light enough to get the plane off the ground.
And so it was when the Wright Brothers made their historic flight on December 17th 1903, they did so with an engine partly built from aluminum.
The continuing history of aluminum and aircraft
With aluminum essential to the construction of the first aircraft, the development of the aluminum industry and the aerospace industry go hand in hand. While wooden planes were the norm for the first decade, with the start of World War I, manufacturers and engineers turned their eyes to aluminum to make their warplanes more durable and able to withstand the rigors of aerial combat.
Hugo Junkers, a German aircraft designer, was the first engineer to construct a metal plane. His Junkers J1 monoplane, built in 1915, had a fully aluminum fuselage and led the way for more metal planes built by both sides during the war. WW1 became famous in military history for the being the first war to include a 3rd field of combat, with the sky joining the sea and land.
With the war over, pilots and engineers set their sights on more peaceful means of competition, with the focus turning to planes built for racing and exploration. During this period biplanes were finally made obsolete as monoplanes became the norm, with most of the new all-metal frames relying on aluminum alloys.
Automotive companies now became interested in the burgeoning airline industry as well, with Henry Ford building the 4-AT in 1925. This plane, made from corrugated aluminum and nicknamed the “Tin Goose,” had three engines and was instantly popular with both pilots and passengers. Other developments during this period included retracting landing gear, variable-pitch propellers and stressed-skin construction, all aided by aluminum.
By World War II, the demand for aluminum, primarily for aircraft construction, became so great that a national campaign was launched calling for Americans to donate scrap aluminum for the war effort. This allowed the United States to build nearly 300,000 planes during the war, flown both by Americans and their allies. During the peak of construction in 1944, American factories were outputting 11 planes per hour.
The most common aluminum alloys for the aerospace industry
Many of the alloys that are most popular in today’s airplanes were developed during World War II. 7075, often referred to as aircraft aluminum, was first created in Japan in the 1930’s and introduced to the US Army Air Corps in 1943 by Alcoa. By the end of the war, it was indispensable to the construction of the US air armada.
What makes 7075 so well suited to airplanes are its beneficial mechanical properties such as high strength, extreme toughness and superior resistance to fatigue. In fact, 7075 is equal in strength to some stainless steel grades while still being significantly lower in weight.
Other popular alloys for the aircraft industry include 6061, 6063, 2024, 2014, 5052, 7050, 7085 and 7068. What all these alloys share in common is a high strength-to-weight ratio combined with varying corrosion resistance.
Your Technical Services Provider
Whether you need a high quality alloy for an advanced application like those in the aerospace industry, or you are looking for the perfect material for a small scale production run, you’ll get the best results by consulting the experts. At Clinton Aluminum, our team of seasoned professionals prides themselves on working with our clients through every step of their procurement process.
It’s no accident that Clinton Aluminum is the Midwest’s leading aluminum supplier. We have earned our reputation by making the success of our clients our top priority. Contact us today to consult with one of our friendly and knowledgeable sales representatives.