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Recently I watched a video on the economics of running an airline. They mentioned that passenger planes have a life span rated in cycles. That got me thinking because as far as I know, fighter jets are rated by flight time hours.

My answer to this was that the only thing that gets pressurized is the cockpit as opposed to basically the entire fuselage. But surely that would still limit the fighters cycling? Or can they simply change the canopy because it is the softest part and absorbs all the flexion?

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    $\begingroup$ Fighter parts are also rated in cycles. The hour rating is based on expected cycles / expected usage. Eg, more BFM and low level practice will wear out the airframes faster. Individual a/c will wear out faster or slower than others even if they were flown the same number of hours. $\endgroup$ – Hephaestus Aetnaean Dec 31 '16 at 13:56
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The philosophy of fighter cabin pressurization is different from that of the passenger aircraft. In case of airliners, the cabin pressure decreases while the aircraft climbs upto a certain altitude, after which the value is kept constant (usually at 6000 - 8000 ft cabin altitude).

In case of combat aircraft, the principle is different. The cockpit pressure is maintained at certain value to a particular altitude (usually 8k feet); then the pressure is maintained (at 8k ft) till the aircraft reaches another altitude (~23k feet); after that a pressure differential (~5 psi) is maintained between the cockpit pressure and the ambient pressure. This reduces stress on the airframe and is safer in case of rapid decompression during combat. So, a fighter cockpit at 40k feet is actually stressed less (due to pressurization) compared to an airliner at that altitude.

There is another thing to be noted- a combat aircraft is designed for much higher loads compared to a civilian airliner; so, the structure is capable of taking more stresses. So, pressurization is not the limiting factor in case of combat aircraft.


One way of calculating the life of fighter aircraft is to apply loads on the airframe depending on the expected mission profile (like TO- cruise- loiter- cruise- landing), then calculate the theoretical life based on how long the airframe survived. Of course, this means that the life will change if the mission changes- like what happened when some aircraft were shifted from high level bombing to low level penetration roles.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for such a detailed answer, I really appreciate it. $\endgroup$ – Kenneth Burfeindt Dec 30 '16 at 15:22
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    $\begingroup$ Many aircraft are lifed according to how much G they pull. G meters record the maximum and minimum G and how many times a particular load is reached during a sortie. From this, a fatigue index (F)) is calculated and once the certified FI limit is reached, the airframe must undergo major repairs or is scrapped. $\endgroup$ – Simon Dec 30 '16 at 17:07

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