Aircraft design process

AST model in wind tunnel

The aircraft design process is the engineering design process by which aircraft are designed. These depend on many factors such as customer and manufacturer demand, safety protocols, physical and economic constraints etc. For some types of aircraft the design process is regulated by national airworthiness authorities. This article deals with powered aircraft such as airplanes and helicopter designs.

Aircraft design is a compromise between many competing factors and constraints and accounts for existing designs and market requirements to produce the best aircraft.

Design constraints


The design process starts with the aircraft's intended purpose. Commercial airliners are designed for carrying a passenger or cargo payload, long range and greater fuel efficiency where as fighter jets are designed to perform high speed maneuvers and provide close support to ground troops. Some aircraft have specific missions, for instance, amphibious airplanes have a unique design that allows them to operate from both land and water, some fighters, like the Harrier Jump Jet, have VTOL (Vertical Take-off and Landing) ability, helicopters have the ability to hover over an area for a period of time.[1]

The purpose may be to fit a specific requirement, e.g. as in the historical case of a British Air Ministry specification, or fill a perceived "gap in the market"; that is, a class or design of aircraft which does not yet exist, but for which there would be significant demand.

Aircraft regulations

Another important factor that influences the design of the aircraft are the regulations put forth by national aviation airworthiness authorities.[2][3]

Airports may also impose limits on aircraft, for instance, the maximum wingspan allowed for a conventional aircraft is 80 m to prevent collisions between aircraft while taxiing.[4]

Financial factors and market

Budget limitations, market requirements and competition set constraints on the design process and comprise the non-technical influences on aircraft design along with environmental factors. Competition leads to companies striving for better efficiency in the design without compromising performance and incorporating new techniques and technology.[5]

Environmental factors

An increase in the number of aircraft also means greater carbon emissions. Environmental scientists have voiced concern over the main kinds of pollution associated with aircraft, mainly noise and emissions. Aircraft engines have been historically notorious for creating noise pollution and the expansion of airways over already congested and polluted cities have drawn heavy criticism, making it necessary to have environmental policies for aircraft noise.[6][7] Noise also arises from the airframe, where the airflow directions are changed.[8] Improved noise regulations have forced designers to create quieter engines and airframes.[9] Emissions from aircraft include particulates, carbon dioxide (CO2), Sulfur dioxide(SO2), Carbon monoxide (CO), various oxides of nitrates and unburnt hydrocarbons.[10] To combat the pollution, ICAO set recommendations in 1981 to control aircraft emissions.[11] Newer, environmentally friendly fuels have been developed[12] and the use of recyclable materials in manufacturing[13] have helped reduce the ecological impact due to aircraft. Environmental limitations also affect airfield compatibility. Airports around the world have been built to suit the topography of the particular region. Space limitations, pavement design, runway end safety areas and the unique location of airport are some of the airport factors that influence aircraft design. However changes in aircraft design also influence airfield design as well, for instance, the recent introduction of new large aircraft (NLAs) such as the superjumbo Airbus A380, have led to airports worldwide redesigning their facilities to accommodate its large size and service requirements.[14][15]


The high speeds, fuel tanks, atmospheric conditions at cruise altitudes, natural hazards (thunderstorms, hail and bird strikes) and human error are some of the many hazards that pose a threat to air travel.[16][17][18]

Airworthiness is the standard by which aircraft are determined fit to fly.[19] The responsibility for airworthiness lies with national aviation regulatory bodies, manufacturers, as well as owners and operators.

The International Civil Aviation Organization sets international standards and recommended practices for national authorities to base their regulations on [20][21] The national regulatory authorities set standards for airworthiness, issue certificates to manufacturers and operators and the standards of personnel training.[22] Every country has its own regulatory body such as the Federal Aviation Authority in USA, DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) in India, etc.

The aircraft manufacturer makes sure that the aircraft meets existing design standards, defines the operating limitations and maintenance schedules and provides support and maintenance throughout the operational life of the aircraft. The aviation operators include the passenger and cargo airliners, air forces and owners of private aircraft. They agree to comply with the regulations set by the regulatory bodies, understand the limitations of the aircraft as specified by the manufacturer, report defects and assist the manufacturers in keeping up the airworthiness standards.

Most of the design criticisms these days are built on crashworthiness. Even with the greatest attention to airworthiness, accidents still occur. Crashworthiness is the qualitative evaluation of how aircraft survive an accident. The main objective is to protect the passengers or valuable cargo from the damage caused by an accident. In the case of airliners the stressed skin of the pressurized fuselage provides this feature, but in the event of a nose or tail impact, large bending moments build all the way through the fuselage, causing fractures in the shell, causing the fuselage to break up into smaller sections.[23] So the passenger aircraft are designed in such a way that seating arrangements are away from areas likely to be intruded in an accident, such as near a propeller, engine nacelle undercarriage etc.[24] The interior of the cabin is also fitted with safety features such as oxygen masks that drop down in the event of loss of cabin pressure, lockable luggage compartments, safety belts, lifejackets, emergency doors and luminous floor strips. Aircraft are sometimes designed with emergency water landing in mind, for instance the Airbus A330 has a 'ditching' switch that closes valves and openings beneath the aircraft slowing the ingress of water.[25]

Design optimization

Aircraft designers normally rough-out the initial design with consideration of all the constraints on their design. Historically design teams used to be small, usually headed by a Chief Designer who knows all the design requirements and objectives and coordinated the team accordingly. As time progressed, the complexity of military and airline aircraft also grew. Modern military and airline design projects are of such a large scale that every design aspect is tackled by different teams and then brought together. In general aviation a large number of light aircraft are designed and built by amateur hobbyists and enthusiasts.[26]

Computer-aided design of aircraft

The external surfaces of an aircraft modelled in MATLAB

In the early years of aircraft design, designers generally used analytical theory to do the various engineering calculations that go into the design process along with a lot of experimentation. These calculations were labour-intensive and time-consuming. In the 1940s, several engineers started looking for ways to automate and simplify the calculation process and many relations and semi-empirical formulas were developed. Even after simplification, the calculations continued to be extensive. With the invention of the computer, engineers realized that a majority of the calculations could be automated, but the lack of design visualization and the huge amount of experimentation involved kept the field of aircraft design stagnant. With the rise of programming languages, engineers could now write programs that were tailored to design an aircraft. Originally this was done with mainframe computers and used low-level programming languages that required the user to be fluent in the language and know the architecture of the computer. With the introduction of personal computers, design programs began employing a more user-friendly approach.[27]

Design aspects

The main aspects of aircraft design are:

  1. Aerodynamics
  2. Propulsion
  3. Controls
  4. Mass
  5. Structure

All aircraft designs involve compromises of these factors to achieve the design mission.[28]

Wing design

The wings of a fixed wing aircraft provide the necessary lift for take-off and cruise flight. Wing geometry affects every aspect of an aircraft’s flight. The wing area will usually be dictated by aircraft performance requirements (e.g. field length) but the overall shape of the planform and other detail aspects may be influenced by wing layout factors.[29] The wing can be mounted to the fuselage in high, low and middle positions. The wing design depends on many parameters such as selection of aspect ratio, taper ratio, sweepback angle, thickness ratio, section profile, washout and dihedral.[30] The cross-sectional shape of the wing is its airfoil.[31] The construction of the wing starts with the rib which defines the airfoil shape. Ribs can be made of wood, metal, plastic or even composites.[32]


Main article: Fuselage

The fuselage is the part of the aircraft that contains the cockpit, passenger cabin or cargo hold.[33]


Aircraft engine
Main article: Aircraft engine

Aircraft propulsion may be achieved by specially designed aircraft engines, adapted auto, motorcycle or snowmobile engines, electric engines or even human muscle power. The main parameters of engine design are:

The thrust provided by the engine must balance the drag at cruise speed and be greater than the drag to allow acceleration. The engine requirement varies with the type of aircraft. For instance, commercial airliners spend more time in cruise speed and need more engine efficiency. High-performance fighter jets need very high acceleration and therefore have very high thrust requirements.[34]


Main article: Aircraft gross weight

The weight of the aircraft is the common factor that links all aspects of aircraft design such as aerodynamics, structure, and propulsion together. An aircraft's weight is derived from various factors such as empty weight, payload, useful load, etc. The various weights are used to then calculate the center of mass of the entire aircraft.[35] The center of mass must fit within the established limits set by the manufacturer.


The aircraft structure focuses not only on strength, stiffness, durability (fatigue), fracture toughness, stability, but also on fail-safety, corrosion resistance, maintainability and ease of manufacturing. The structure must be able to withstand the stresses caused by cabin pressurization, if fitted, turbulence and engine or rotor vibrations.[36]

Design process and simulation

The design of any aircraft starts out in three phases[37]

Conceptual Design

Conceptual design of a Breguet 673

The first design step, involves sketching a variety of possible aircraft configurations that meet the required design specifications. By drawing a set of configurations, designers seek to reach the design configuration that satisfactorily meets all requirements as well as go hand in hand with factors such as aerodynamics, propulsion, flight performance, structural and control systems.[38] This is called design optimization. Fundamental aspects such as fuselage shape, wing configuration and location, engine size and type are all determined at this stage. Constraints to design like those mentioned above are all taken into account at this stage as well. The final product is a conceptual layout of the aircraft configuration on paper or computer screen, to be reviewed by engineers and other designers.

Preliminary design phase

The design configuration arrived at in the conceptual design phase is then tweaked and remodeled to fit into the design parameters. In this phase, wind tunnel testing and computational fluid dynamic calculations of the flow field around the aircraft are done. Major structural and control analysis is also carried out in this phase. Aerodynamic flaws and structural instabilities if any are corrected and the final design is drawn and finalized. Then after the finalization of the design lies the key decision with the manufacturer or individual designing it whether to actually go ahead with the production of the aircraft.[39] At this point several designs, though perfectly capable of flight and performance, might have been opted out of production due to their being economically nonviable.

Detail design phase

This phase simply deals with the fabrication aspect of the aircraft to be manufactured. It determines the number, design and location of ribs, spars, sections and other structural elements.[40] All aerodynamic, structural, propulsion, control and performance aspects have already been covered in the preliminary design phase and only the manufacturing remains. Flight simulators for aircraft are also developed at this stage.

See also


  1. "Hovering". Flight maneuvers. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
  2. "Airworthiness - Transport Canada". Airworthiness Directives. Transport Canada.
  3. "Airworthiness - CASA". Airworthiness Directives. CASA - Australian Government.
  4. "ICAO Aerodrome Standards" (PDF). ICAO Regulations. ICAO. Retrieved 5 October 2011.
  5. Lloyd R. Jenkinson; Paul Simpkin; Darren Rhodes (1999). "Aircraft Market". Civil Jet Aircraft Design. Great Britain: Arnold Publishers. p. 10. ISBN 0-340-74152-X.
  6. "Travel(Air) - Aircraft Noise". Mobility and Transport. European Commission. 2010-10-30. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  7. "Annex 16 - Environmental Protection" (PDF). Convention on International Civil Aviation. ICAO. p. 29. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 5, 2011. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
  8. William Wilshire. "Airframe Noise Reduction". NASA Aeronautics. NASA. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  9. Neal Nijhawan. "Environment: Aircraft Noise Reduction". NASA Aeronautics. NASA. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  10. "Safeguarding our atmosphere". Fact Sheet. NASA - Glenn Research Center. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  11. "ICAO Airport Air Quality Guidance Manual" (PDF). ICAO Guidlines. ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation). 2007-04-15. Archived from the original (PDF) on December 14, 2013. Retrieved 7 October 2011.(see for updated manual.
  12. "Biofuel Flight Demonstration". Environment. Virgin Atlantic. 2008. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  13. "Aircraft Recycling : Life and times of an aircraft". Pressroom - Airlines International. IATA. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  14. Alexandre Gomes de Barros; Sumedha Chandana Wirasinghe (1997). "New Aircraft Characteristics Related To Airport Planning" (PDF). First ATRG Conference, Vancouver, Canada. Air Transport Research Group of the WCTR Society. Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  15. Sandra Arnoult (2005-02-28). "Airports prepare for the A380". Airline Finance/Data. ATW (Air Transport World). Retrieved 7 October 2011.
  16. "Bird hazards". Hazards. Retrieved 12 October 2011.
  17. "The human component in air accidents". Air Safety. Retrieved 12 October 2011.
  18. "Aviation Weather Hazards" (PDF). LAKP Prairies. Retrieved 12 October 2011.
  19. "Airworthiness". Dictionary. The Free online Dictionary. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
  20. "ICAO regulations". ICAO. Retrieved May 5, 2012.
  21. "Annex 8 - ICAO" (PDF) (Press release). ICAO. Retrieved May 5, 2012.
  22. L. Jenkinson; P. Simpkin; D. Rhodes (1999). Civil Jet Aircraft Design. Great Britain: Arnold Publishers. p. 55. ISBN 0-340-74152-X.
  23. D. L. Greer; J. S. Breeden; T. L. Heid (1965-11-18). "Crashworthy Design Principles" (PDF). Technical Report. Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC). Retrieved 9 October 2011.
  24. Dennis F. Shanahan. "Basic Principles of Crashworthiness" (PDF). NATO.
  25. "Airbus A330-A340 Overhead Panel" (PDF). Data. Retrieved 9 October 2011.
  26. "Amateur Built Aircraft". General Aviation and Recreational Aircraft. FAA. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
  27. "Aircraft Design Software". Computer Technology. NASA. Archived from the original on 24 August 1999. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
  28. "Techniques for Aircraft Configuration Optimization". Aircraft Design : Synthesis and Analysis. Stanford University. Retrieved 2011-09-20.
  29. Civil jet aircraft design. p. 105. ISBN 0-340-74152-X.
  30. Civil Jet Aircraft design. ISBN 0-340-74152-X.
  31. John Cutler; Jeremy Liber. Understanding aircraft structures. ISBN 1-4051-2032-0.
  32. Hugh Nelson (1938). Aero Engineering Vol II Part I. George Newnes.
  33. "Fuselage Layout". Stanford University. Retrieved 2011-09-18.
  34. "Beginner's Guide to Propulsion". Beginner's Guide. NASA. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
  35. "Aircraft weight and balance". Pilot friend - Flight training.
  36. T.H.G Megson. Aircraft Structures (4th ed.). Elsevier Ltd. p. 353. ISBN 978-1-85617-932-4.
  37. John D. Anderson (1999). Aircraft Performance and design. McGraw-Hill. pp. 382–386. ISBN 0-07-001971-1.
  38. D. Raymer (1992). Aircraft Design - A conceptual approach. American institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. p. 4. ISBN 0-930403-51-7.
  39. D. Raymer (1992). Aircraft design - A conceptual approach. American institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. p. 5. ISBN 0-930403-51-7.
  40. John D. Anderson (1999). Aircraft performance and Design. Mc Graw Hill. ISBN 0-07-001971-1.

External links

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