Retrospective: 2011 pros and cons of composite airplanes as Boeing, Airbus look to next 20 years

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By Scott Hamilton

What will the Future Small Airplane look like? Composites, metal, or a combination? Concept Credit: Leeham News.

Aug. 29, 2022, ©Leeham News: Airbus and Qatar Airways are in a nasty court battle over composite degradation on the A350. Lightning strike protection is a major concern in the Qatar lawsuit. Paint begins to strip off composite materials on the A350 and Boeing 787. Building composite airplanes is expensive.

Composites have been on airplanes since the days of the Boeing 727 when the wing-to-body fairings were made of composites. Airbus put composite vertical fins on the A310 and A300-600R. Private airplanes used composites.

But it was the Boeing 787 that became a ground-breaking airliner with its composite wings and composite fuselage. Boeing’s launch of the 787 in December 2003 was what would later be described as a moonshot. It was the first “all” composite airplane. (About 52% by weight was composite.)

It was the first “all-electric” aircraft, meaning all systems were powered by electric energy. Boeing intended that this would be a “snap-together” airplane. Fuselage sections were to be “stuffed” when delivered to the final assembly line in Everett (WA) and “snapped” together, like a prefabricated house. Outsourcing to industrial partners was taken to unprecedented levels at Boeing. (Airbus already largely practiced this for its aircraft.)

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