Most modern planes are made from metals and composite materials.
Aluminum is primarily used for the plane’s body because it’s relatively lightweight, and highly resistant to corrosion, while steel is used for the plane’s landing gear and other components that require strength and sturdiness.
Aircraft manufacturers are also increasingly using composite materials because they’re easy to manufacture and mold.
Some of the world’s most advanced military planes, like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, are built with composite materials, with 35% of the structural weight and most of the visible surface on the fighter made of composite materials.
Table of Contents
- 1 What are Airplanes made of?
- 2 Different Types of Planes Are Made of Different Materials
- 3 Planes Used to Be Made of Unexpected Materials
- 4 Why Are Planes Made Of Aluminum?
- 5 Why is Steel Not Used to Build Planes?
- 6 What Will Planes Be Made Out of in the Future?
- 7 How Much Does It Cost to Build a Plane?
- 8 How Long Does it Take to Build a Plane?
What are Airplanes made of?
Airplane Body (Fuselage)
Most airplane bodies are made of metals, like titanium, aluminum, and steel, and composites, including polymers and carbon fiber.
For example, a Boeing 787’s body is made of the following:
- 50% composite materials
- 20% Aluminum
- 15% Titanium
- 10% Steel
- 5% Other materials
All these materials are stiff, strong, and lightweight, which makes them suitable for airplane bodies.
Composite materials are especially useful because they’re easily malleable, too.
Most aircraft wheels are made from aluminum alloy.
Some are made with magnesium alloy.
Related: How Long Do Airplane Tires Last?
Wings & Tail
Aircraft wings are mostly made of aluminum.
The engines and fasteners are mostly built with titanium.
Steel is also used for some sections of the wing and tail.
Aircraft noses are primarily built with materials like quartz and fiberglass.
Multiple chemical resins and foam cores are also often used to construct airplane noses, too.
If we take the Boeing 737 and 747, the windshield is made of two plies of tempered glass along with an interlayer.
Jet engines are built with iron-nickel superalloys because of their heat resistance at high temperatures.
Iron-nickel superalloys are used for the engine casing, blades, and discs.
Airplane landing gears are usually made of steel, since the landing gear has to be sturdy and robust to support the aircraft’s entire weight.
Different Types of Planes Are Made of Different Materials
Different types of planes are often made of different materials.
Small planes like bush planes can be built with wood/composite materials and metal.
For example, the Bowers Fly Baby’s body is made of spruce and plywood.
In contrast, larger commercial airliners are mostly made of metal and composite materials.
Planes Used to Be Made of Unexpected Materials
The world’s first planes were made with wood and cloth.
These materials allowed flight because they were lightweight.
Both were discarded over time because they could be easily damaged, and aviators needed stronger materials to fly at higher altitudes.
- 1903: The Wright brothers completed the world’s first flight with a plane mostly made of wood and fabric.
- 1915: Hugo Junkers builds the Junker J1, the world’s first all-metal plane.
- 1925: Henry Ford built the Ford Trimotor, which made metal the primary building material for aircraft.
- 1939-1945: During WWII, US aircraft began using rubber replacements for many metal parts of their airplanes.
- The 1960s: NASA developed Kevlar and Nylon for spacecraft. But, these materials also entered the aviation industry.
- The 1970s to today: Carbon fiber plastics and metal became the dominant material for aircraft construction.
Why Are Planes Made Of Aluminum?
Planes are commonly made of aluminum because it’s lighter and cheaper than steel or titanium, while also being highly resistant to corrosion.
For example, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner features twice as much aluminum as it does steel in its construction.
Sometimes, aircraft manufacturers use aluminum-based alloys to reduce construction cost, too.
The Airbus A350, for instance, is made of an aluminum-lithium alloy.
Why is Steel Not Used to Build Planes?
While steel is used to build aircraft components like the landing gear, it’s not used for the rest of the aircraft’s body because of its weight.
Airplane bodies have to be lightweight, so with steel being three times heavier than aluminum, it just isn’t suitable.
What Will Planes Be Made Out of in the Future?
Planes in the future will most likely be made with a higher amount of composite materials.
NASA’s aeronautics division has completed an advanced composite project that will no doubt make its way into the commercial aviation sector.
Future composite materials for aircraft manufacture include metal-matrix nanocomposites and polymer and ceramics-based materials.
These materials are preferred because they’re easy to manufacture and mold.
Some of these composite materials are also resistant to lightning and electromagnetic interference.
How Much Does It Cost to Build a Plane?
A plane costs anywhere between $50,000 to over $100 million to build, depending on its size.
Small planes cost between $50,000 to a few million dollars to build.
Private planes cost between $1 million to over $100 million dollars to build.
Commercial planes cost between tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars to build.
The build cost of the most common Boeing and Airbus commercial planes is not public information, but we can estimate that they cost over $100 million to build.
The official cost of building most fighter jets is classified, and the cost can also vary significantly depending on the model.
We can estimate that fighter jets cost $20 million to over $100 million dollars for the Lockheed Martin F-35B, though this doesn’t include research and development costs that can be vast.
How Long Does it Take to Build a Plane?
It takes 6 months to build most large planes, though under ideal circumstances and once efficiency has been maximized, a large plane can be built in as little as 2 months.
Wide body jets take the longest to build, and smaller planes take the least time.
The actual time to build a plane could be delayed by supply times, problems, and other issues.
- Most modern planes are built with metals, like aluminum and steel, and composite materials.
- Modern planes use steel for the landing gear and an aluminum or aluminum alloy for the plane’s body.
- Composite materials are also increasingly popular for plane construction because they are lightweight and easily moldable.
- Most planes of the future will likely be predominantly made of composite materials.
- The world’s first planes were built with wood and cloth, but these materials were discarded in favor of metal because metal is stronger.
Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.
Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.
Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.