Put a little makeup on that airplane, please

 - September 14, 2006, 10:23 AM

There is no airplane so beautiful that a good paint job won’t help it look even better, maybe a lot better. So says Jim Burress, manager of Landmark Aviation’s paint department in Springfield, Ill., and veteran of more than 28 years in the business.

Burress, 47, is the boss, with a crew of 18 people, some of whom have been applying paint to airplanes for longer than Burress has. “We have a good stable crew, and their experience ranges from about 35 years down to 10 years.”

Expertise, he notes, is a matter of both time and experience. Last year, the shop did nearly 50 exterior paint jobs, many on airplanes as large as a Global Express. It’s rare, he said, when there isn’t at least one airplane in the pipeline in some stage of strip, prep or paint.

If the paint crew staff is an older group, the three-bay shop is only six years old and designed to meet every environmental regulation–local, state and federal–and then some.

There is a million dollars worth of air compressors to ensure proper airflow and provide pressure for painting. The facility also maintains air pressure at neutral for the two paint bays. “You can open a door to go in or out and within 20 seconds the pressure in the bay is back to neutral again. So we don’t push out overspray or suck in dirt.”

The bay where the overall paint is applied has a downdraft environment. Striping and details are applied in a cross-draft bay.

The environment for all three bays is automatically monitored and any departure from the set parameters prompts an immediate call to the paint shop manager and maintenance supervisor.

“These were all things we took into consideration before we started building,” said Burress. “We studied everything from the traffic flow of aircraft and employees to chemical formulas, how the paint should be applied and under what conditions.” The Springfield shop typically shoots a two-part conventional urethane paint formula in an ideal environment of 77 degrees F and 47-percent humidity (depending on the formula).

During the paint mixing process, a system automatically calculates the amount of volatile organic compounds, ensuring that they are kept to a minimum.

A Multistep Process

A 200-page training manual that outlines the complex process is required reading for every paint shop employee.

In the simplest terms, the process of painting a pre-owned airplane typically begins with masking before use of the chemical paint remover, followed by a power rinse and flush. After de-masking, the airplane is sanded until the metal is clean, followed by a soap-and-water and degreasing process.

Then an acid-etch preparation is applied to make the surface more receptive to the paint, followed by another thorough rinse. Then an alodine is applied to prevent corrosion and provide a surface to which the primer and paint will stick more readily. But the airplane is still not ready for paint until the primer is applied and dried and the entire airframe re-sanded and blown clean.

Then comes the paint–a two-part conventional urethane, usually in white or off-white. Then the airplane is “baked” overnight at between 90 and 100 degrees F and 60 degrees humidity, depending on the paint formula. After that the crew gets out the lasers and lays out any stripes and logos and other art. Following the color
details, the crew paints the top of the wings, a last step to avoid any scuffing during the painting of detail work.

Some aircraft will get an optional Teflon coating on the wing leading edges and on
some other surfaces more exposed to friction. Then the paper masking applied for detail work is removed, placards are replaced and the radome boots reattached. The airplane is jacked up, the wheels are removed for cleaning and for checking the bearings and races, and operational checks are conducted on all the control surfaces.

After all this, said Burress, comes rollout and delivery to the customer. That, he said, is a special day, with most of the crew in attendance, and a special paint job might draw others from around the facility.

“We love having the customer there for the rollout. In the owner’s mind, that final step is what justifies the cost of the airplane, and we want it to look just the way he expects it to.”

Burress concedes that most of the paint schemes on modern business aircraft have all the excitement and panache of a political speech– off-white with two or three stripes, or if the owner is feeling particularly daring, a couple of ribbon-like swirls along the fuselage.

Burress said the shop has had its share of unusual paint jobs. One customer wanted the entire fuselage painted to look like the ocean’s surface, with waves breaking over the tail. Another wanted the aircraft done in PPG’s Harlequin, a specially formulated paint that changes color, depending on the viewing angle and the angle of the light. This finish required a powder pigment specially milled by an independent lab. The pigment alone cost the owner $72,000.

The shop recently finished a Global Express that carries memories of World War II and the famous Supermarine Spitfire IX fighter. The Global owner asked for the image of the specific Spitfire he had flown to be painted, in detail, on the underside of the big business jet.

But it doesn’t matter, said Burress, whether it’s something out of the ordinary, or well within the bounds of boring. “We take our paint real personal, from the designers to the people who apply the final touches. It’s hard, hard work, and you’ve gotta love it. Airplanes that roll out of here have thousands of hours of labor invested.”

The shop provides a touch-up kit, and “we even teach the owners’ maintenance people how to take care of it.” For example, the instructions warn against the use of silicone-based waxes. “The sun will bake it into the paint and the finish will end up looking like it’s developed water spots, except that they won’t come out. We even teach them how to carefully score around a screw that has to come out so that when it goes back in, the touch-up will be minimal.”

Burress says a well done paint job should last at least five years with little or no loss in brilliance. He added, “Seven years is not unusual, and I’ve seen some come in here after 10 years and they look almost as good as the day they rolled out.”