What Is Airplane Skin?

To keep flying safe, aircraft are carefully manufactured to endure the harsh environment present at 30,000 feet in the air. At this altitude, temperatures tend to range from minus 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and aircraft are exposed to turbulence, ultraviolet sunlight, moisture, and other external factors. To protect them from damage caused by these conditions, aircraft are constructed with a membrane-like barrier called skin. Read on to learn more about how airplane skin is created and used to keep aircraft safe from high-altitude environmental dangers.

As the outermost layer of an airplane’s body, almost every part of a plane’s exterior will be protected by skin. This material is quite thin, usually measuring about 1/8 of an inch thick or less, and it is made of a variety of different materials, including aluminum, titanium, titanium alloy, or steel. Aluminum is often used because it is lightweight and rust-resistant despite it not being as strong as its alternatives.

For additional strength, some aircraft use titanium skin, which is much stronger than aluminum. Despite this, it is also heavier and more costly, so this may impact a manufacturer’s decision to choose this material. Instead of plain titanium, some aircraft use titanium alloy skin, which contains mostly titanium, along with other metals that help the material exhibit features that are not present in titanium.

Aircraft performance is greatly impacted by an aircraft’s skin, which is sealed to reduce drag. Any inconsistencies on the surface, even ice, can negatively impact a plane’s aerodynamic performance. As such, the entire surface of the vessel should ideally be smooth and without bumps or waves. This is often a challenge to achieve, and every imperfection on the skin of an aircraft will ultimately impact its performance. For example, metal planes have round-head or brazier-head rivets that attach the skin to the airframe, creating a significant amount of drag that can add up to as much as 5 percent to the vessel's total amount of drag.

In addition to rivets, joints between skin panels called lap joints increase the drag of ordinary turbulent-flow airfoils by as much as 9 percent. Moreover, many aircraft have wing walks that have been deliberately roughened to make it easier for people walking across the wing to get into the plane. This creates friction between the air and the wing during flight, leading to more drag. Even painted stripes have minute gaps in the paint between the stripe and base color which can affect airflow in the same way a skin-lap joint does. Furthermore, dirt and grit accumulated on the skin can create significant drag, impacting vehicle performance.

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