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Software Predicts Operational Flight Life of Critical Structural Components
November 16, 2011

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Innovators at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center have developed a software program that predicts the operational flight life of critical aerostructural components. The Half-Cycle Crack Growth Computer Program offers a reliable method for calculating theoretical fatigue crack growths that could lead to catastrophic structural component failures. The program builds upon and integrates Armstrong's proven half-cycle and closed-form aging theories and is especially accurate because it considers every half-cycle of loading spectra for specific structural components. The program works by reading test data files and determining maximum and minimum loads of each half-cycle of random loading spectra in order to calculate theoretical crack growth. The innovation is an improvement on traditional prediction software (and in particular on visual inspections) because it considers mini-amplitude stress loading and half-cycles based on the duty cycle of a particular component or structure. Developed to calculate the number of operational life flights for B-52B pylon hooks at Armstrong testing facilities, the program and underlying theories can be applied to estimate the service life of any critical structural component, making it suitable for use in other industries, especially for construction and petrochemical firms.


  • Reliable: Predicts operational flight life of critical aerostructural components
  • Accurate: Considers a comprehensive suite of test data by counting every half-cycle of each random loading spectrum, including secondary mini-amplitude half-cycles that do not cross mean stress lines
  • Customized: Identifies potential structural problem areas and calculates the number of safe flights an aerostructure can make based on its particular duty cycle
  • Economical: Saves monetary costs associated with loss of expensive equipment due to component failures
  • Adaptable: Offers applicability to other industries, with modifications to the input model


The software program can be used to monitor the operational life of structural components subjected to cyclical loading, particularly in the aerospace, construction, and petrochemical industries, including:

  • Spacecraft
  • Aircraft
  • Ships
  • Oil rigs
  • Windmills
  • Bridges
  • Oscillating industrial equipment used in mines and quarries

Technology Details


How It Works

The Half-Cycle Crack Growth Computer Program is a powerful and practical tool for visualizing crack growth curves associated with critical stress points. It was designed to determine the number of safe operational flights an aircraft can make without structural component failures due to fatigue crack growth.

The computer program was developed after two rear B-52B pylon hooks failed simultaneously during an Armstrong test operation. Subsequent examinations revealed that hook failure was caused by rapid crack propagation from existing micro cracks that had been masked by chrome-plated surfaces and thus were undetected during visual inspections.

To obtain baseline data for use in the program, the critical structural components must be proof-load tested to determine the initial theoretical crack size based on fracture mechanics. Next, strain gauges are installed in the vicinity of stress concentration points and are calibrated to record the applied loads. After the failure-critical components are identified, stress analysis is performed for each component to establish the functional relationship between the applied load and the induced tangential stress at the critical stress point (see Figure 1).The program reads the data and selects the maximum and minimum loads of each half-cycle of the random flight loading spectra. Program outputs are used to generate and display crack growth curves, providing a visual warning for preventing catastrophic structural failures. For the B-52B pylon hooks discussed above, crack growth curves were produced for each hook, allowing visual observation of the crack growth behavior during the entire air-launching or captive flight. The crack growth curves provided the visual knowledge that taxiing, takeoff, drop/landing, and sometimes gusts induced a major portion of the total crack growth per operation (see Figure 2).

Figure 1. Distribution of tangential stress, σt, along the inner boundary of the B-52B pylon front hook
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    Figure 2. Crack growth curve for the B-52B front hook carrying Hyper-X launching vehicle
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Written in the C programming language, the program can be adapted for use in other industries by modifying the input model (i.e., data format load spectrum files) for the most expensive and mission critical components.



Why It Is Better

The program examines test data in a much more detailed fashion than other fatigue crack growth modeling software, counting every half-cycle of each random loading spectrum, so it is able to make better predictions about component life. By improving fatigue and failure predictions, the software provides safer flights and lower maintenance costs. Additionally, these predictions allow engineers to determine the critical points during operation that the majority of stress is placed on a particular component, which could allow for better component design that takes those specific forces into account.

Commercial Opportunity

This technology is part of NASA's Innovative Partnerships Office, which seeks to transfer technology into and out of NASA to benefit the space program and U.S. industry. NASA invites companies to consider opportunities for partnership and usage of the Half-Cycle Crack Growth Computer Program (DRC-010-044).

Contact Information

If you would like more information about this technology or about NASA's technology transfer program, please contact:

Technology Transfer Office
NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center
PO Box 273, M/S 1100
Edwards, CA 93523-0273
Phone: (661) 276-3368
E-mail: DFRC-TTO@mail.nasa.gov

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