Speaking Out: ACEE, the NASA program that almost didn't get composites on commercial jets

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Arab oil-producing countries imposed an embargo on customers friendly to Israel. There were long lines and high prices at U.S. gas pumps, and the airlines were paying more for fuel as well. The airlines complained to Senator Barry Goldwater, who was a pilot and a member of the

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During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the Arab oil-producing countries imposed an embargo on customers friendly to Israel. There were long lines and high prices at U.S. gas pumps, and the airlines were paying more for fuel as well. The airlines complained to Senator Barry Goldwater, who was a pilot and a member of the Senate Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee, and requested that the National Aeronautics and Space Admin. (NASA) start working on ways to increase the fuel efficiency of commercial jets. Two factors contributed to the success of this tactic: Previously, most NASA efforts had been space-oriented and not much money had been spent improving planes, plus NASA had many Ph.D’s sitting around looking for work during the lull after the Apollo Moon landings in the late ’60s. So two of NASA’s research centers, Langley (Hampton, Va.) and Lewis (Cleveland, Ohio) were turned on to pursue this goal. Lewis had responsibility for jet engines while Langley worked on materials/structures.

At that time, I worked at Douglas Aircraft (Long Beach, Calif.) doing some of the company’s early work on composites. We were convinced that applying composites to planes would result in a large weight savings compared to aluminum structures, but the cost of composites and the fact that composites had very little history under flight conditions presented significant barriers to their use. NASA decided to fund composites development programs at the three commercial passenger plane airframers: Lockheed, Douglas and Boeing. Each was asked to select a secondary structural part on their respective passenger jets for conversion to composites. It was called the ACEE (Air Craft Energy Efficiency) program and was supposed to help reduce composites costs and get composites into production. Under ACEE, NASA would provide $10 million (USD) to pay for the R&D, fabrication and testing, and then the companies would install parts on production planes for service experience.

Lockheed picked an inboard aileron for its L-1011, Douglas chose an upper aft rudder for its DC-10, and Boeing picked wing spoilers for its 727. The same prepreg fiber/resin system was to be used by all: Narmco 5208 epoxy, from Narmco Materials Co. of Costa Mesa, Calif., with Thornel T-300 fiber, from Union Carbide (which in 1993 became part of Amoco Performance Products and now is made by Cytec Carbon Fibers LLC, Piedmont, S.C.) because it was characterized with the highest mechanical properties and was thought to be the best around before Hercules 3501-6 was available from Hercules Aerospace in Magna, Utah (now part of Hexcel Corp., Dublin, Calif.).

One of the requirements was that each company share with all the others the progress it was making and what it learned about composite design, analysis, tooling and fabrication. Additionally, NASA had a representative on site at each company, an an engineer whose job it was to observe what was going on and keep Langley headquarters aware of daily activities. This “observer” (we had another word for what he did) would call Langley every day and report the day’s happenings. Inevitably, someone at Langley would call the program manager and question him about why such-and-such happened. The whole thing quickly got out of hand, and we spent more time defending daily operations than solving technical problems.

One day, our NASA rep showed up in the composites shop and asked me to do something that I considered nonsensical. When I balked at it, he insisted and finally, in frustration, I told him to “get out of the shop and don’t come back.” I was, at that time, a low-level engineer, not a manager — and certainly not the program manager type. Very soon (in about one hour), Langley heard about it and I was called on the carpet in a meeting of Douglas chiefs: I had mistreated the customer and needed to apologize, pronto, or I’d be fired … and maybe I should be fired anyway, etc. Sitting in the back of the room was our Contracts guy who was busy reading through paperwork. Suddenly, he spoke up. “I don’t see anything in the contract where the NASA rep has free run of the shops,” he declared, adding, “and as far as I’m concerned, Bob was in the right.” With that, the Douglas chiefs reversed their edict and declared that the NASA rep was no longer to be permitted in the shop unescorted. As we left the meeting, our program manager patted me on the back, with a “thank you.” The word got out quickly to Lockheed and Boeing and, soon, all the NASA reps were kept at their desks and no more time was wasted on the unnecessarily vigilant oversight.

As we progressed into building parts in 1977, a very unusual event occurred halfway across the country that stopped all work. McAir (McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Corp., St. Louis, Mo., now part of Boeing) had built and installed a composite rudder on an F-4 Phantom II fighter-bomber for service experience. As a mechanic was performing a routine engine run-up one day, the plane started rolling on its own, crashed into a wall and exploded into a ball of fire. The post-crash investigator, an Air Force colonel, happened to kick the black, burnt rudder. The impact released a cloud of carbon fibers into the air. Researchers at Wright-Patterson AFB (Ohio) looked into the “cloud” phenomenon and hypothesized that, should a composite plane ever crash and burn, the resulting cloud of electrically conductive graphite fibers could pose a serious menace, shorting out computers, electrical transformers, switches, telephones and other electrical systems. The ACEE contracts were put on “indefinite hold” and the money was diverted to research the “free fiber problem.” After six months of analysis and debate, it was decided that a full-scale fire test would be conducted to verify the hypothesis. Pieces of cured composites were gathered from many sources, about 2,500 lb/1,100 kg worth, and shipped to Mercury, Nev., an atomic bomb test site. Sensor cables were strung from two 700 ft/213m instrumented towers to detect fibers in the vicinity of the test site. Helicopters were outfitted with sensors to detect fibers in the wind while flying in patterns at a distance from the site. The composites were stacked between the towers, gasoline was poured over them and a remotely controlled igniter set it ablaze in a huge ball of fire. The instruments were sensing and the helicopters were flying and when all was done, nothing much was sensed. The Free Fiber Problem was declared over and we all went back to work.

Eventually, each airframer completed its parts and put them through structural testing, and a limited number of each were installed for flight testing. Douglas put 13 rudders on commercial planes. All seemed to work fine until one day a big white crate was delivered to our Long Beach facility with paperwork that indicated it had been removed from an Air New Zealand plane because it had a broken rib. The airline wanted a metal replacement, immediately. Now, this rudder was 60 ft/18.3m above the ground, mounted on the tail end of the vertical stabilizer — it would have been difficult to damage in service. When we opened the box, we found a big, size-12 shoe print on the rudder surface right at the spot where the rib was broken! Someone — somehow — had actually placed his foot on the rudder and applied so much pressure that the thin rib had cracked. So much for that rudder’s service experience.

Despite the drama, and as amusing as it all seems today, the parts all worked as intended and this success led to a bigger phase in which primary structures were built and flown on commercial passenger planes. And the rest, as they say, is history.