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Factors Affecting Corrosion

The environmental conditions under which an aircraft is maintained and operated greatly affect corrosion
characteristics. In a predominately marine environment (with exposure to sea water and salt air), moisture- laden
air is considerably more detrimental to an aircraft than it would be if all operations were conducted in a dry
climate. Temperature considerations are important because the speed of electrochemical attack is increased in a
hot, moist climate.

Foreign Material
Among the controllable factors which affect the onset and spread of corrosive attack is foreign material that
adheres to the metal surfaces. Such foreign material includes:

Soil and atmospheric dust.

Oil, grease, and engine exhaust residues.
Salt water and salt moisture condensation.
Spilled battery acids and caustic cleaning solutions.
Welding and brazing flux residues.

It is important that aircraft be kept clean. How often and to what extent an aircraft should be cleaned depends on
several factors, including geographic location, model of aircraft, and type of operation.

Corrosive Agents
Corrosive agents are substances that are capable of causing a corrosive reaction. Most corrosive agents fall into one
of two categories, acids and alkalis. However, care must be taken not to overlook other less obvious corrosive
agents such as the atmosphere which contains moisture, salts, or corrosive industrial agents.
Almost all acids and alkalis form effective electrolytes as they react with metals to form metallic salts, but some
electrolytes are more active than others. For example, the sulfuric acid found in aircraft batteries is especially
active in corroding aluminum. However, a weak solution of chromic or phosphoric acid is often used as a surface
treatment to prepare metal for painting. Ferrous metals are subject to damage from both acids and alkalis, but
aluminum is more vulnerable to strong alkaline solutions than it is to acids. For example, an aluminum structure
can be severely corroded if it is allowed to remain in contact with a concrete floor. Water draws out enough lime
from the cement to form an alkaline solution that corrodes the aluminum.
It is very important to remember that many compounds other than sodium chloride fall into the category of salts.
In general, salts are the result of a metallic element combining with a nonmetal. The resulting compound is almost
always a good electrolyte, and can promote corrosive attack. Magnesium is particularly vulnerable to
corrosive attack from an electrolyte formed by salt solutions.
Although it is not commonly found in any quantity around aircraft, there is a definite possibility that mercury
could be spilled in an aircraft. Hazardous cargos are often carried in aircraft, and damage from a shifting load can
result in damaged containers and hazardous spills. Mercury attacks aluminum by a chemical reaction known as
amalgamation. In this process, the mercury attack along the grain boundaries within the alloy, and in a very short
time completely destroys it. Extreme care must be exercised when removing spilled mercury, as it is "slippery"

and flows through tiny cracks to get to the lowest part of the structure where it causes extensive damage. In addition, mercury and its vapors are poisonous to humans and precautions must be taken to avoid exposure to it.
If mercury is spilled, remove every particle with a vacuum cleaner having a mercury trap in the suction line, or
with a rubber suction bulb or medicine dropper. Never attempt to remove mercury by blowing it with compressed
air. This only scatters it and spreads the damage.
Pure water reacts with metals to form corrosion or oxidation, but water holding a concentration of salts or other
contaminants causes much more rapid corrosion. Seaplanes are in a continual battle with the elements, and every
precaution must be taken to stay ahead of corrosion formation. Seaplanes operating in salt water are especially
vulnerable to attack, and when one is taken out of salt water it should be hosed down with large volumes of fresh
water to get every trace of salt off the structure. Seaplane ramps are often located in areas where there is a
concentration of industrial wastes, making the water even more corrosive. Float bottoms are subject to the abrasive
effect of high-velocity water on takeoff and landings. Since this abrasion tends to damage the natural protective
oxide film, seaplanes must be carefully inspected to detect any damage which would allow water to get to the base
metal of the structure. It is obviously impossible to isolate a structure from the air in which it exists, but the very
presence of air is a factor in the deterioration of metal. Marine atmosphere and air above industrial areas hold large
concentrations of salts. The chemicals precipitate out of the air and collect on the surface of an aircraft where they
attract moisture from the air.
For years, water which condensed in fuel tanks produced relatively minor corrosion problems. Small perforated
metal containers of potassium dichromate crystals protected the fuel tanks by changing any water into a mild
chromic acid solution, which inhibited corrosion.
Jet aircraft, however, use a high viscosity fuel which holds more water in suspension than other aviation fuels. Jet
aircraft also fly higher than reciprocating engine aircraft and the low-temperature flight conditions associated
with these altitudes cause water that is entrained in the fuel to condense out and collect in the bottom of the tanks.
This water contains microscopic animal and plant life called microbes. These organic bodies live in the water and
feed on the hydrocarbon fuel. Furthermore, the dark insides of the fuel tank promote their growth, and in very
short periods of time these tiny creatures multiply and form a scum inside the tank. This scum can grow to cover
the entire bottom of a tank and hold water in contact with the tank structure. This provides a place for
concentration cell corrosion to form. If the
scum forms along the edge of the sealant in
an integral fuel tank, the sealant can pull
away from the structure, causing a leak and
an expensive resealing operation.

Microbial growth within a turbine aircraft fuel tank

forms a scum that holds water against the metal and
causes corrosion to form.

It is virtually impossible to prevent the formation of this scum as long as microbes are allowed to live in fuel. The
most successful solution to the problem has been to use an additive in fuel which kills these organic growths and
prevents the formation of the corrosion-forming scum.
In addition to preventing corrosion by its biocidal action, this same fuel additive also serves as antifreeze to prevent
entrained water from freezing. Should entrained water freeze, the resulting slush could plug the fuel screens and
cause fuel starvation.