Composites Edged Aluminum In 2007

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When composites first arrived on the light aircraft scene many pilots greeted them with skepticism -- but a recent review of General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) records by CompositesWorld.com shows that more than half of 2,675 piston-engine aircraft produced in 2007 (1,376) were built with composite airframes. "A decade ago, less than five percent were," Jens Hennig, vice president for GAMA, told the publication. New manufacturers (with their roots in the kit airplane market) have embraced the technology and employed it in innovative and very popular designs, notably Cirrus, Diamond, Columbia, and Liberty aircraft, which together account for most of that market saturation. Cirrus Design, alone, accounted for 26 percent (710 aircraft) of the total piston deliveries in 2007. Epic Aircraft may add to the tally in the future. The company produces numerous very high-performance composite kit aircraft (some of which are slated for certification), and in 2007 set a record during the Sun 'n Fun airshow by recording the most sales logged ($23 million) by any exhibitor. Said Dieter Koehler, vice president of engineering and certification for Epic, "Composite airplanes are stronger and safer than metal planes because of the worst-case hypothetical test conditions that are imposed by the certifying bodies."

Some new composite designs currently in (or slated for) the certification pipeline are Cirrus' the-Jet, Diamond's D-Jet, Honda's HondaJet, Spectrum's Freedom, Learjet's 85-series, and Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, which suggests the trend toward composite aircraft production may not be limited to smaller general aviation aircraft. As for general aviation -- in 2007, aeronautical structures consumed an estimated 1.94 million pounds (880 metric tonnes) of raw carbon fiber, according to CompositeWorld.com. In 2008, demand for carbon fiber is expected to climb to 2.4 million pounds. And by 2017, the company forecasts that "annual carbon fiber demand related to general aviation aircraft production should swell by 35 percent to 3.26 million lb."