What Materials Are Aircraft Made Of (& Why) – Plane Design Priorities

Most people wonder at some point how airplanes are able to fly but have you ever wondered what material are planes made of? The materials used to make planes, wings, body and skin make a big difference when it comes to their reliability and learning about these materials can be interesting and fun.

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What Are Aircraft Made Out of?

Most airplanes are made out of titanium, steel, aluminum, and many other materials, including composites. Composites can contain a variety of different materials, usually including polymers, carbon fiber, and more.

These metals are stiff and strong as well as resistant to corrosion and light in weight. They are the perfect materials for making aircraft of all types.

Boeing 777 - Materials used in construction
Boeing 777 – Materials used in construction

Why Are Planes Made Of Aluminum

Since steel is too heavy to be used on its own, some planes — including the 787 Dreamliner made by Boeing — use twice as much aluminum as they do steel in their aircraft.

Some manufacturers add materials such as aluminum to titanium and other alloys since these materials can be very expensive to use on their own.

For example, on the Airbus A350 jet plane, an aluminum-lithium alloy is used and many of the Boeing Company’s fuselages are made out of materials that include various polymers.

Boeing 787 - Materials used
Boeing 787 – Materials used

All Materials Have Their Pros and Cons

Because each material has its own advantages and disadvantages, many airplanes are actually manufactured using many types of aircraft materials.

For instance, many of the Airbus and Boeing planes are made from a minimum of 50% composite material while the Rolls Royce PLC company, which makes plane engines, employs composites made of materials such as ceramics and plastics.

Different materials have different strengths and weaknesses. In practice this means an aircraft will be made out of a vast number of different materials for parts such as the wings, fuselage, body and skin.

As you can see, airline companies do not have to settle with just one type of material because there are a number of materials available to use, meaning a safe and easy-to-fly plane that is also reliable.

Saving Weight Is Top Priority

Of course, the aircraft materials normally used consist of both light and heavy components mainly because the plane has to fly and therefore cannot be made out of super-heavy metals. The weight of the body in particular has to be kept to a minimum.

Most planes also have frames made out of lightweight aluminum and/or composite materials that often include a carbon-reinforced plastic, or CREP.

Essentially, most older commercial planes are made mostly of aluminum and most newer planes are now using composite materials. Military planes can use a light alloy such as titanium.

Airbus A350 material  breakdown
Airbus A350 material breakdown

Design Priorities Depend On The Plane’s Purpose

In addition, the purpose of an airplane goes a long way in the manufacturers’ decision to use a particular type of metal, especially the metal used in the plane’s frame and body.

As far as the other plane parts are concerned, the engine’s piston is usually made out of steel whereas many other major parts are made of aluminum alloys. The engine itself usually consists of a combination of steel, aluminum, and titanium alloys.

In the development of an aircraft, engineers play a big role because they are the ones who make recommendations regarding the appropriate aircraft materials for a particular airplane.

The plane’s size, purpose, and other aspects help them determine which materials to use because this is the only way to guarantee that the plane will be well built and reliable.

What About Smaller Planes?

Of course, we’ve been talking mostly about big commercial aircraft but what about other types of planes? Interestingly, the earliest planes were rarely made out of materials such as steel and aluminum.

In fact, the Wright Brothers used a combination of wood — mostly ash and spruce — to make the first airplane and they used a muslin fabric to cover it once construction was complete.

The Wright Flyer
The Wright Flyer

The very first passenger plane, the Ford Tri-Motor, was made out of aluminum in the late 1920s, just the same as today’s Boeing 747. The fastest jet-propelled aircraft, the Lockheed SR71 Blackbird, is made out of titanium.

Yet more reasons why titanium is added to steel in the making of aircraft are because:

  • It is almost as strong as steel.
  • It is heat-resistant.
  • It is corrosion-resistant.
  • It is a medium-weight metal.

In addition, planes that come in kits for laypeople and that the pilots put together themselves are available through many online stores.

These planes can be made out of wood including Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, wooden joints with plywood gussets, and an aircraft fabric that is usually some type of polyester, which the plane is covered in after it is built.

Of course, smaller planes such as types of bush planes can be constructed with other aircraft materials as well, including wood/composite materials and metal. Some of these planes include the Bowers Fly Baby, the Pietenpol Air Camper, the Ison miniMax, the PIK-26, and the KR series of homebuilt planes.

The composite material used in these small planes usually consists of fiberglass or carbon fiber cloth or a structural plastic such as vinylester or epoxy.

In fact, there are two main types of composite materials used in these types of plane: molded composite, where the plane parts are curved and formed in molds, and mold-less, where they are formed from foam then covered in carbon fiber or fiberglass.

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