Winning The Battle - Losing The War

In the battle of Aluminum vs. Composites, the plastic folks are winning the public relations battle...losing the war. A number of sectors are involved:

Every university worth its high tech salt has a department or at least a chair teaching composites. It has been going on now for over a generation. Preparing wide eyed students for a career in the Brave New World of Composite Airplanes. Promulgating in one form or another, the Five Myths of Composite Aircraft.

Is there even one school out there teaching the realities of aluminum structure and how to get the most strength with the least amount of weight and cost?

Need money for composite research? Pick your check up at NASA, the FAA or the Department of Defense.

Need money for making better airplanes out of aluminum? Do you think the government is made of money?

Apparently the government did not spend enough on composite research because the new highly touted, mostly composite Lockheed VF-22 fighter aircraft is in big trouble with the Pentagon. Cost over-runs, performance short-falls threaten the production phase of the program. Not an unfamiliar result with composite aircraft programs.

The editors business is to sell magazines. Anything new sells magazines. The promise of more affordable airplanes or higher performance sells magazines. It is not the role of a magazine editor to question the promise of the aircraft designer, they simply report what they hear.

There is lots of ink available when the new program is viable. When they die, they just quietly pass from the scene only to be replaced by another dreamer.

Start-up Aircraft Companies
Announce a new aircraft and you have the ear of the aviation world. There is no need to advertise. In an industry where new products are few and far between, the public is eager to learn whatever they can on new products. The aviation press is just as eager to supply the information.

The start-up has a soap box to promote his dream. The more outrageous the claims, the more widespread the distribution of the claim will be.

Goals for this propaganda effort are two-fold. First, reassure the investors and second, fill up the order book with those who always want to be first in line for something new and something better.

And whatever the start-up says, is spread as gospel. In the case of composite aircraft, the designer has typically bought into one or all of the Five Myths of Composite Aircraft and these are repeated over and over, printed over and over. Almost like the lie if repeated often enough, soon becomes the truth.

Composite Suppliers
A slight molecular change in the resins...a new weave in the cloth...a new change in the process, all warrant a press release that gets picked in the trade publications. Is this the magic bullet that will fulfill the promise of composites or just another carrot dangling slightly out of reach, to perpetuate the Myths!!!

Crosstown rivals Beech and Cessna illustrate the contrast.

Cessna is Textron's most profitable division. Cessna builds basically aluminum airplanes and only selectively use composites where they are best suited.

Since Raytheon took over Beech during the early days of the Starship , the company has never made a profit despite having dumped hundreds of millions into the development of composite airplanes, millions and millions of dollars into very expensive capital equipment such as huge autoclaves, numerically controlled tape wrapping systems plus all of the associated tooling and support costs.

Beech's composite aircraft show no performance gains over the Cessna product line.

Beech's composite aircraft show no price advantage over the Cessna line.


Apart from sailplanes that benefit from plastics, there is:
  • No composite aircraft certified and in production showing a performance gain over an aluminum rival.
  • No composite airplane certified and in production showing a price advantage over an aluminum rival.
  • No composite aircraft certified and in production that has returned all of its development costs and is turning a profit for the manufacturer.