Since the first helicopter took flight in 1939, helicopters have seen vast improvement in terms of their structure, flight capacities, and more. In particular, helicopters have seen growth in the material composition of the various components they have, with many being manufactured using fiberglass, carbon, and aramid (Kevlar) fibers. The use of fiber composites is not new to rotary-wing aircraft. In fact, they have always had a closer relationship to composite materials than their counterparts.
In the aerospace realm, material strength and weight are always considered together when constructing any aircraft. The primary advantage of composite structures is not that they are stronger than similar metallic structures. It is their lightweight characteristics that make them ideal. While weight is an important consideration in fixed-wing designs, they are especially important in the design of helicopters. This is largely due to the fact that early helicopter engines were severely underpowered.
Wood, dope, and fabric structures in the 30s and 40s laid the foundation for the aluminum structures that would take over in the 50s and 60s. However, through the 70s, many components continued to evolve and eventually made use of fiberglass technology. By the mid 80s, fuselage sections and very large components were being manufactured from carbon, aramid, and other fiberglass composites.
Improving helicopter performance has been approached by designing smaller, more powerful engines, and making the airframe as light as possible without sacrificing safety. That being said, advancements in engine technology have contributed to the overall performance of helicopters. Most notably, the use of turbine engines is considered one of the most fundamental aspects of helicopter development, alongside the unlimited service life of composite rotor blades and composite fuselage structures.
How exactly can composites achieve a similar material strength as their metallic counterparts while maintaining their lightweight characteristics? To answer this, we must acquire a better understanding of both materials. To begin, metals are isotropic materials, meaning that they exhibit the same strength regardless of the direction in which we impose a load on them. As such, any structure built from metal would have innate strength in directions it may not need. As a result, it would be heavier than it needs to be.
Composites, on the other hand, are made of continuous fibers that are embedded in a resin matrix to withstand loads imposed on a part. They are usually in the form of a woven cloth or fabric. Furthermore, a laminate is composed of multiple layers of a fabric and each ply can be positioned in any direction the manufacturer chooses. Another advantage of composites is the fact that they have a variety of properties as they are made from differing materials.
For instance, fiberglass possesses a high strength-to-weight ratio, excellent environmental resistance, and increased flexibility. Similarly, carbon fiber comes in a variety of strength and stiffness combinations, alongside a higher modulus than fiberglass. Next, aramid, or Kevlar, is notorious for its durable fiber composition that features high tensile strength. It becomes clear that fiber composites are advantageous materials that benefit helicopters in numerous ways. Nonetheless, they are not everlasting. Over time, they face wear that eventually necessitates the replacement of certain structural components.
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