Skin deep

Industry experts share tips and best practices for good designs and lasting coatings.

By Stuart Lau
ATP/FE/CFII. Airbus A300–600
Boeing 747, 747–400, 757/767
Bombardier CRJ, Saab 340

West Star completes over 150 projects per year at its paint facilities in Grand Junction CO and Alton IL. One of its most challenging paint jobs included a screaming eagle image on a titanium silver base for a customer's Citation XLS.

Aircraft paint is an important part of any maintenance program as it prevents corrosion. Paint manufacturers recommend repainting an aircraft every 5 to 6 years. A good paint job will beautifully reflect hours of preparation and care, while a bad paint job may cover up a multitude of problems only to be discovered long after completion.

Painting an aircraft involves much more than just shooting a glossy coat of paint. According to experts, the value is in the details. Thus, an operator's greatest challenge is to find the best shop to partner with for its needs. Pro Pilot has assembled some of the industry's best paint professionals to chime-in on the various tips and best practices related to refurbishing an aircraft's exterior.

Of interest, not all MROs offer paint refurbishment services. According an Aircraft Maintenance Technologies survey, only 41% of MROs paint aircraft as there are several barriers of entry in this highly specialized field. One of the greatest assets of any good paint shop, according to the experts surveyed, is its human capital; designers, painters and program managers can make or break a shop based on their talents.

Other challenges include compliance with EPA regulations and acquiring and managing capital-intensive equipment and facilities. State-of-the-art aircraft paint hangars, for example, aren't cheap. The best facilities are now equipped with advanced LED lighting and triple filtered computer-driven sidedraft airflow systems. In a modern facility the aircraft will be stripped, primed, painted, and striped without ever leaving the paint hangar.

Importance of paint

Bombardier Global Express paint design by Duncan Aviation. This MRO completes about 100 paint projects annually at each of its high-tech paint facilities in Battle Creek MI and Lincoln NE. Each location can accommodate large long-range business jets.

Duncan Aviation Modifications Sales Mgr Nate Klenke says, "Paint is more than a beautiful finish; it is a maintenance element of the aircraft and it has a purpose: to protect the aircraft from the development of corrosion. While most of the attention goes to the design and glossy exterior, the paint creates a thin, protective shell that's the aircraft's only line of defense against the elements. When that shell begins to fail, the structural integrity of the aluminum skin is in jeopardy. To maintain the bottom line, owners and operators may be enticed by lower costs, but what they don't know is that savings may cost more in the long run."

Klenke also stresses the importance of continual maintenance after the aircraft leaves the paint shop. "Paint also requires care and maintenance itself," he adds. "You can't just do it and forget it. It needs to be properly cared for, which differs depending on the environment the aircraft is exposed to.

It also needs to be touched up and, when its useful life is over, it needs to be stripped off and redone to continue protecting the aircraft the way it should. Deterioration of the protection value of the paint is directly related to the age of the paint and utilization of the aircraft. Maintenance inspections are an ideal time for complete paint refurbishments."

Aircraft operate in harsh environments where temperatures can range from 130° F on the ramp up to -50° F at altitude. This is why materials, such as paint, matter as well. Sherwin-Williams Aerospace Coatings Global Product Mgr Julie Voisin states, "As one of the most important – and visible – aircraft components, aerospace coatings must meet a wide range of specifications and provide crucial protection against corrosion and wear and tear in the most punishing environments, so examining the condition of existing paint is crucial in any inspection. A dull finish can affect aerodynamics and glide, and too many layers of old paint add weight, affect speed and increase fuel costs."

Considerations when repainting

Elliott Aviation combined several of its specialties by transforming this King Air into a complete aero medical transport. The company's Moline IL facility added a medical interior and applied this unique paint scheme for a children's hospital.

Depending on the operational environment of the aircraft, a paint job should last up to 6 years. However, exposure to natural elements (UV, rain, etc) as well as chemicals (de-ice, hydraulic fluids, etc) will decrease the lifespan of paint.

Voisin provides some insights into when an aircraft should be repainted. "Often, a routine inspection will reveal that an aircraft will need only minor touch-ups to its existing paint system," she explains. "Other times, an inspection will reveal that the aircraft will need to be stripped, prepped and repainted. If any paint has eroded, a repaint might be required even if an aircraft is relatively new.

The decision to repaint depends on the condition of the previous coating system, how it was applied and the quality of the materials used. The better the quality of the paint system used on an aircraft, the less frequently it will need to be stripped and repainted."

There are a number of details to consider when planning a paint project. According to West Star Aviation Paint Shop Lead Jeremy Turnbough, "When an operator is planning a paint project, it's highly recommended they consider paint schemes and colors that are as maintenance friendly as possible. You should also discuss your design idea with the on-staff designer, and ask to see examples of their work done.

When it comes to selecting a paint shop for your business aviation aircraft I say to look for quality and pride backing up their work. Looking at their customer history and other areas of their MRO capabilities is important as well. If you find a company that backs up its work and prides itself on quality, you will have great success with your paint maintenance."

Stevens Aviation Paint Shop Mgr Mike Royals adds "The top 3 considerations are factoring in your available downtime, your available budget, and planning your upcoming paint project after a major inspection due to the amount of panels that have to be opened and removed for the inspection."


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