An alarming set of pictures is making the rounds on social media lately showing a pilot fixing a badly damaged plane with tape. It turns out these pictures are very old, but they still elicit similar responses from people: How can a plane fly held together with tape? While this use-case is extreme, it’s actually not unheard of or unsafe to use tape on a plane. Here’s why!
Capt. Ivan, a senior airline captain flying Boeing 737s, posted the pictures to Twitter. A poor 1958 Piper PA-18A 150 Super Cub met the business end of a bear thanks to a cooler left inside of the plane with fishing bait in it.
This story seems like a work of fiction but it must have worked because the FAA Registry notes that the plane’s latest airworthiness certificate was issued in 2017, several years after the incident. But how? How does a taped-up plane go anywhere?
The Piper Super Cub from that story is built with fabric stretched over a steel frame. From the pictures, it doesn’t appear that the bear severely damaged the frame underneath the fabric. But that doesn’t mean the plane will still easily fly with torn-up skin. The damage would cause a lot of drag and, in the case of this horizontal stabilizer at back, would probably cause issues with lift.
So, the pilot wrapped the plane up in duct tape. While not an ideal solution, it cleans up the airframe and the plane doesn’t really fly fast enough to peel it off. It’s a concept that Mythbusters explored and sure enough, it works for small, slow-flying general aviation planes.
But what about big planes? Images often circulate around social media showing tape applied to planes that fly far faster, higher and worse, are pressurized.
The tape used on the airliners is not duct tape, despite appearances. This tape is called speed tape, or aluminum foil tape and it works a bit differently than the silver tape you’re used to seeing. Not only is the tape good for the same speeds an airliner can fly, but it’s sensitive to pressure and temperature changes, too. I’ll let professional pilot and YouTuber Mentour Pilot explain:
The key thing to remember is that this tape isn’t used for load-bearing parts. You aren’t going to see it used to hold a wing on, but it can temporarily fix a crack in a non-essential part until the plane gets to where the part can be replaced.
Unfortunately, this super tape comes with a super price to match its abilities. It can cost $700 or more just for a single-wide roll of the stuff, so the pilot fixing the Piper Super Cub likely used duct tape.
So the next time you see a plane with some tape on it, don’t panic, your flight should be perfectly safe!