'Stealth' commercial planes on the horizon?
By Rick Lockridge
WICHITA, Kansas -- The jets that you fly in tomorrow might be made of the same stuff some tennis racquets and golf clubs are made of today. That is, if a huge gamble by a Wichita airplane maker pays off.
You won't find Rosie the Riveter on the assembly line for Raytheon Aircraft's new business jet. The Premier has a molded carbon-fiber fuselage, 30 percent lighter than aluminum and 100 percent rivet-free.
A similar structure made of an aluminum process would require thousands of parts, said Raytheon's Richard Danforth.
"Lots of parts. Lots of manpower. Lots of variability. There is no variability in this fuselage," he said.
Composite airframes were first developed for military fighters. They absorb radar, making jets like the F-22 stealthy. Raytheon likes composites for a different reason: they save weight, add strength and don't weaken over time.
"The characteristics of this composite are far more stable than an aluminum structure. This has essentially no fatigue life as compared to a very definite fatigue life with an aluminum structure," Danforth said.
A mold called a mandrel gives the Premier its shape. A rubber bladder goes on first. Then a $6 million dollar machine called a Viper lays on 24 thin strips of carbon fiber tape, over and over.
Jigsaw-pieces of a tough Kevlar honeycomb go on next -- a laser guide shows where. This layer protects against lightning strikes.
Then it goes into a high-temperature vacuum chamber until the shell is cured.
On the main assembly line, the wings go on. They are still made of aluminum, for now, so rivets and bolts are used here.
It takes about five days to put all the pieces together, wire the interior, and attach the engines. But the finished jet has fewer than half the parts of its predecessors and costs 25 percent less to make.
Competitors say it's unproven, too costly
The Horizon, a larger molded-body jet, is only weeks away from its maiden flight. Could passenger jets be next?
"There's no reason we could not make that size airplane in a commuter category aircraft," said Raytheon vice-president Jack Hulsey.
Test-pilot Charlie Volk said the first thing customers notice about the 6-passenger Premier is how much roomier it is than other corporate jets in the $5 million dollar price range.
"A lot of other corporate pilots will stick their head in the airplane and say, my gosh, it is big! And I know that's important to the customers. And a lot of people commented on it who hadn't seen it before," he said.
But competitors, like Cessna and Gulfstream, said they have no plans to abandon metal airframes. They say carbon-fiber technology is still unproven and the tools too expensive.
Raytheon Aircraft is betting $500 million, and its own future, that the rest of the industry is wrong. It will be built in a fraction of the time, with a fraction of the labor, according to the company.
So far the marketplace seems to approve. Customers have ordered 300 Premiers and $1 billion worth of the larger Horizons, enough work to keep this Kansas plant humming through 2006.
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