Aircraft design

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Aircraft design

The process of designing an aircraft, generally divided into three distinct phases: conceptual design, preliminary design, and detail design. Each phase has its own unique characteristics and influence on the final product. These phases all involve aerodynamic, propulsion, and structural design, and the design of aircraft systems.

Design phases

Conceptual design activities are characterized by the definition and comparative evaluation of numerous alternative design concepts potentially satisfying an initial statement of design requirements. The conceptual design phase is iterative in nature. Design concepts are evaluated, compared to the requirements, revised, reevaluated, and so on until convergence to one or more satisfactory concepts is achieved. During this process, inconsistencies in the requirements are often exposed, so that the products of conceptual design frequently include a set of revised requirements.

During preliminary design, one or more promising concepts from the conceptual design phase are subjected to more rigorous analysis and evaluation in order to define and validate the design that best meets the requirements. Extensive experimental efforts, including wind-tunnel testing and evaluation of any unique materials or structural concepts, are conducted during preliminary design. The end product of preliminary design is a complete aircraft design description including all systems and subsystems. See Wind tunnel

During detail design the selected aircraft design is translated into the detailed engineering data required to support tooling and manufacturing activities.


The requirements used to guide the design of a new aircraft are established either by an emerging need or by the possibilities offered by some new technical concept or invention. Requirements can be divided into two general classes: technical requirements (speed, range, payload, and so forth) and economic requirements (costs, maintenance characteristics, and so forth).

Aerodynamic design

Initial aerodynamic design centers on defining the external geometry and general aerodynamic configuration of the new aircraft.

The aerodynamic forces that determine aircraft performance capabilities are drag and lift. The basic, low-speed drag level of the aircraft is conventionally expressed as a term at zero lift composed of friction and pressure drag forces plus a term associated with the generation of lift, the drag due to lift or the induced drag. Since wings generally operate at a positive angle to the relative wind (angle of attack) in order to generate the necessary life forces, the wing lift vector is tilted aft, resulting in a component of the lift vector in the drag direction (see illustration). See Aerodynamic force, Wing

Wing lift and drag due to liftenlarge picture
Wing lift and drag due to lift

Aircraft that fly near or above the speed of sound must be designed to minimize aerodynamic compressibility effects, evidenced by the formation of shock waves and significant changes in all aerodynamic forces and moments. Compressibility effects are mediated by the use of thin airfoils, wing and tail surface sweepback angles, and detailed attention to the lengthwise variation of the cross-sectional area of the configuration.

The size and location of vertical and horizontal tail surfaces are the primary parameters that determine aircraft stability and control characteristics. Developments in digital computing and flight-control technologies have made the concept of artificial stability practical. See Stability augmentation

Propulsion design

Propulsion design comprises the selection of an engine from among the available models and the design of the engine's installation on or in the aircraft.

Selection of the best propulsion concept involves choosing from among a wide variety of types ranging from reciprocating engine-propeller power plants through turboprops, turbojets, turbofans, and ducted and unducted fan engine developments. The selection process involves aircraft performance analyses comparing flight performance with the various candidate engines installed. In the cases where the new aircraft design is being based on a propulsion system which is still in development, the selection process is more complicated. See Aircraft engine, Turbofan, Turboprop

Once an engine has been selected, the propulsion engineering tasks are to design the air inlet for the engine, and to assure the satisfactory physical and aerodynamic integration of the inlet, engine, and exhaust nozzle or the engine nacelles with the rest of the airframe. The major parameters to be chosen include the throat area, the diffuser length and shape, and the relative bluntness of the inlet lips.

Structural design

Structural design begins when the first complete, integrated aerodynamic and propulsion concept is formulated. The process starts with preliminary estimates of design airloads and inertial loads (loads due to the mass of the aircraft being accelerated during maneuvers).

During conceptual design, the structural design effort centers on a first-order structural arrangement which defines major structural components and establishes the most direct load paths through the structure that are possible within the constraints of the aerodynamic configuration. An initial determination of structural and material concepts to be used is made at this time, for example, deciding whether the wing should be constructed from built-up sheet metal details, or by using machined skins with integral stiffeners, or from fiber-reinforced composite materials.

During preliminary design, the structural design effort expands into consideration of dynamic loads, airframe life, and structural integrity. Dynamic loading conditions arise from many sources: landing impact, flight through turbulence, taxiing over rough runways, and so forth.

Airframe life requirements are usually stated in terms of desired total flight hours or total flight cycles. To the structural designer this translates into requirements for airframe fatigue life. Fatigue life measures the ability of a structure to withstand repeated loadings without failure. Design for high fatigue life involves selection of materials and the design of structural components that minimize concentrated stresses.

Structural integrity design activities impose requirements for damage tolerance, the ability of the structure to continue to support design loads after specified component failures. Failsafe design approaches are similar to design for fatigue resistance: avoidance of stress concentrations and spreading loads out over multiple supporting structural members. See Structural design

Aircraft systems design

Aircraft systems include all of those systems and subsystems required for the aircraft to operate. Mission systems are those additional systems and subsystems peculiar to the role of military combat aircraft. The major systems are power systems, flight-control systems, navigation and communication systems, crew systems, the landing-gear system, and fuel systems.

Design of these major subsystems must begin relatively early in the conceptual design phase, because they represent large dimensional and volume requirements which can influence overall aircraft size and shape or because they interact directly with the aerodynamic concept (as in the case of flight-control systems) or propulsion selection (as in the case of power systems).

During preliminary design, the aircraft system definition is completed to include additional subsystems. The installation of the many aircraft system components and the routing of tubing and wiring through the aircraft are complex tasks which are often aided by the construction of partial or complete aircraft mock-ups. These are full scale models of the aircraft, made of inexpensive materials, which aid in locating structural and system components. See Airplane

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