Aircraft Environmental Testing

Environmental testing in the aviation industry is an important factor in the development, production, and operation of electronic, mechanical and other aircraft systems and all components and hardware for use on aircraft from general aviation aircraft, large airliners, military transport planes and rotary aircraft.

Environmental testing involves subjecting components, hardware and systems to environmental extremes to fully test the items before being used in service. It is important that the aircraft navigation, communications and other critical systems are durable enough to withstand the range of environmental conditions they may be subject to during the course of a flight. An aircraft engine and all of its hundreds of sensitive parts and components needs to be able to withstand the extreme temperature fluctuations and vibration, flammability and shock hazards during take-off. The aim is to identify weaknesses within the testing environment that can cause life-threatening failures in flight.

RTCA/DO-160 Standard

In the aviation industry, standard RTCA/DO-160 ‘Environmental Conditions and Test Procedures for Airborne Equipment’, has been adopted by all major aviation manufacturers and suppliers for the environmental testing of all airborne components. The standard is not a regulation or requirement however, it outlines the procedures, best practices and environmental tests required for compliance and certification for use in aircraft.

Due to the use of this standard, aviation suppliers, testing facilities and airlines all benefit from the standardization of testing requirements that makes it easier to get components certified on multiple aircraft types. Airlines do not need to maintain their own specific requirements and suppliers and testing facilities can become more efficient with the familiarity of one set of testing requirements.

DO-160 testing involves a wide range of factors designed to encompass almost any event that can disrupt the performance of an aircraft component or system in flight. Some of the major categories of testing in the standard include:

Environment testing includes the testing of temperature, humidity and altitude extremes, and also testing for exposure to sand, salt, dust and water. Environmental testing is performed in large test chambers that can simulate the various environmental conditions to test everything from individual components to complete aircraft systems.

Dynamic Testing encompasses testing for vibration and shock. Objects are placed on vibration tables capable of producing large acceleration forces and are subjected to varying degrees of vibration stresses. Components can be subject to either random vibration sequences to simulate unpredictable vibration environments, such as turbulence, or steady vibration rates for determining resonance conditions of the object.

Windshields, nose assemblies, wings and engine housings are constantly subject to impacts from hail, bird strikes, and other airborne debris and must be able absorb the energy from the impact and maintain their function and structural integrity for the remainder of the flight.

Flammability testing involves subjecting the components to excessive heat or a direct flame and to measure the ability of items to function properly and maintain their structure in that environment. Aircraft seats, cushions, internal walls, insulation and other materials used on the aircraft are tested for fire resistance.

Testing on the electrical systems of the aircraft is important to measure the impact of changes in the aircraft operating voltage and sudden power surges or voltage spikes. Electrostatic discharge and lightning strike simulations are also used to determine the damage to the aircraft’s sensitive electronics or aircraft wiring in the event of a strike.

Electromagnetic interference tests disturbances generated by external sources that produce electromagnetic emissions that could interfere with aircraft electrical and compass systems such as from some portable electronic devices brought on aircraft from passengers.