Although the exploitation of advanced composite materials in the aerospace industry is steadily increasing, high strength metallic materials, particularly aluminium alloys, are still the first choice for large-scale fleets such as the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737. Since the introduction of stressed-skin “semi-monocoque” aircraft structures in the 1930’s the structural design philosophy has developed considerably, and the history of this development has been greatly influenced by in-service failures.

  • 1930 – 1940: Early commercial transport aircraft. Design and structural design focus primarily on static strength with little regard to long- term material degradation by mechanical fatigue i.e. cracking, creep etc.
  • 1940 – mid 1950’s: Aluminium alloys with higher static strength are developed to reduce material usage but with little improvements or even reductions in fatigue strength. A number of catastrophic in-service failures leads to the increasing awareness of fatigue failure for safe design.
  • mid 1950’s – present: The terms “fail-safe” and “damage tolerant” design are coined, which account for damaged and cracked structures before service. The embedded damage is expected grow during service as a result of cyclic loading. Safety is ensured by pre-service testing to ascertain the extent of damage that will induce ultimate failure, and regular inspection, repair and replacements in-service before the critical damage size is reached.

Four case studies are generally considered to be critical milestones in the development of current structural design for metallic aircraft structures (2-5).

Table 1. Four milestone aircraft failures that influenced future aircraft structural design (1)


aircraft failure

lessons learned


Two DeHavilland Comet aircraft crash as a result of fuselage explosions

First indicator and seed for awareness of finite aircraft fatigue life as a critical design factor in modern thin-skinned aircraft shell structures. Development of full-scale fatigue testing.


F-111 wing failure as a result of an undetected initial material flaw

Initial material flaws and defects have to be accounted for prior to service and monitored in-service. Aircraft should be damage tolerant.


Boing 707 tailplane lost as a result of fatigue failure in a spar

The older the aircraft the more susceptible it is to fatigue cracking. Also crack growth accelerates with increasing size.


Boeing 737 loses part of fuselage skin due to multiple fatigue cracks in spars

Multiple-site fatigue damage may occur in ageing aircraft. Joints in the structure are especially critical.




(1) R.J.H Wanhill (2002). Milestone Case Histories in Aircraft Structural Design. National Aerospace Laboratory. NLR-TP-2002-521

(2) J. Schijve (1994). Fatigue of aircraft materials and structures. Int. J. Fatigue. Vol. 16 (1) pp. 21-32

(3) T. Swift (1987). Damage tolerance in pressurised fuselages. 11th Plantema Memorial Lecture. New Materials and Fatigue Resistant Aircraft Design (ed. D L Simpson) pp 1 – 7. Engineering Materials Advisory Services Ltd., Warley, UK.

(4) A.J. McEvily (2002). Metal Failures: Mechanisms, Analysis, Prevention. Chapter 1. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, USA

(5) A.F. Blom (2002) Fatigue science and engineering – achievements and challenges. 18th Plantema Memorial Lecture, ICAF’2001: Design for Durability in the Digital Age. Vol I, pp 3-64. Toulouse, France.

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