To maintain performance, aircraft require constant maintenance of their structural integrity. Metal structural repairs must be done with the best available techniques and materials, as deficiencies can pose an immediate or potential danger. This is complicated by the fact that an aircraft must be kept as light as possible, which narrows the margin of safety. This means that repairs must be strong enough to carry all the loads caused by flight, but not be so strong that they weigh the aircraft down. A joint that is too weak is obviously intolerable, but a joint that is too strong can end up causing stress and cracks in other locations.
Aircraft sheet metal is typically made of aluminum alloys and serves as both the structure and the outer aircraft covering, with the metal parts joined by rivets or other types of fasteners. Sheet metal is used in everything from airliners to crop-dusters, but it can also be used in aircraft made of composite materials, such as in an instrument panel. Sheet metal is made by rolling metal into flat sheets of varying thicknesses, ranging from thing (leaf) to plate (pieces thicker than 6mm or 0.25 inches). The thickness of sheet metal, called gauge, ranges from 8 to 30, with the higher gauge denoting thinner material.
Damage to metal aircraft structures can be caused by corrosion, erosion, normal stress, and accidents or mishaps. Sometimes, extensive structural reworks are required during modifications and repairs. Installing winglets, for example, involves not just replacing the aircraft wingtip with a winglet, but also requires reinforcing throughout the wing structure to carry the additional stress.
Numerous methods of repairing metal structural portions exist, but no specific set of repair patterns applies in every case. The problem of repairing a damaged section is usually solved by duplicating the original part’s strength, type of material, and dimensions. To make a structural repair, the technician needs a good working knowledge of how to form aircraft metal sheet and the unique techniques that come with that. In general forming means changing the shape by bending and forming solid metal. With aluminum, this is usually done at room temperature.
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