By David Rhys-Jones
Glasflügel test flew a fully composite glider, the BS1, in 1962. The Boeing 787, with a composite fuselage and a few other composite components first flew in 2009. Glider designers started to use Carbon Fibres in the early 1970’s, a few years after they were invented. They were not incorporated into airliners until 2000.
Engineering design is driven by the evolution of materials. In the Victorian Era, it was cast and wrought iron. In the Twentieth Century, it was steel, aluminium, concrete and glass fibre. Carbon fibre and sophisticated resins and plastics are the materials of the here and now and glider designers were among the first pioneers to use them.
Carbon fibres followed the development of artificial fibres such as Nylon. Nylon itself was nothing new. Spiders and silkworms had been producing fibre for millions of years. The Chinese have been been weaving it into fabrics for thousands of years. The silkworm caterpillar exudes a substance from its head which hardens in air. It winds it round itself to form a cocoon in which it can safely change into a moth. Nylon is made in a similar fashion. The base material is forced through multiple tiny holes in a spinning head to make a tightly wound thread. In the war, when the Japanese occupied most of the areas of Asia where the silk was produced, nylon production was ramped up for parachute material and ladies stockings. This led to Rayon, Orlon and Polyester and it was Rayon which became the base material for Carbon Fibre.