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Schatzberg, Eric, 1956- / Wings of wood, wings of metal : culture and technical choice in American airplane materials, 1914-1945

11. Epilogue: culture and composite materials,   pp. [223]-232

Page [223]

Epilogue: Culture and Composite Materials
ON DECEMBER 23, 1987, an odd-looking experimental airplane named Voy-
ager landed at Edwards Air Force Base in California after an incredible nine-
day flight (figure 11.1). The Voyager and its pilots, Dick Rutan and Jeana
Yeager, had achieved one of the last remaining aviation milestones, a non-
stop flight around the world without refueling. The Voyager traversed
25,012 miles, more than doubling the previous record for a nonstop, un-
refueled flight, a record set in 1962 by a huge B-52 jet bomber. Yet the
Voyager was no massive metal behemoth. Its designer, Burt Rutan, had used
practically no metal in the entire structure. Instead, the Voyager's airframe
consisted of "advanced composites," space-age combinations of exotic
fibers and epoxy resins. Metal's ultimate triumph, so confidently predicted
in the 1920s, now appeared threatened by a new set of high-performance
materials. 1
Or perhaps not so new. The Voyager's structure was a variant of two ideas
that aviation engineers had investigated since the 1930s-fiber-reinforced
plastics and sandwich construction. German researchers first studied avia-
tion uses for fiber-reinforced plastics in the early 1930s (see chapter nine).
This research continued in England and the United States during and after
World War II, eventually leading to the commercially available fibrous com-
posites that Rutan used in the Voyager. Sandwich construction had first
appeared in the de Havilland Albatross in the mid-1930s, and was then used
with great success on the fuselage of the Mosquito (see chapter ten). Re-
search on sandwich materials continued after the war, though plywood and
balsa were replaced by synthetic materials. In a design reminiscent of the
Mosquito fuselage, the Voyager used a thick, load-bearing skin, formed
from a honeycombed core of synthetic Nomex paper bonded on both sides
to thin sheets of resin-impregnated carbon fibers.2 In a very real sense, the
origins of the Voyager lie in the innovative wooden airplanes of the 1930s
and related research on nonmetallic structural materials.3
The full history of composite materials in aviation lies beyond the scope
of this book.4 Yet a brief outline of this history reveals many parallels with
the shift from wood to metal. First, composites faced, and continue to face,
many of the same technical problems that metal had to overcome in the
1920s, problems that make the choice between composites and light alloys

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