Dassault breaks ground on new Wilmington paint shop

 - March 19, 2008, 5:55 AM

“When you paint an airplane, seven things happen, and six of them are bad.” So says Frank DeNisio, and he ought to know the potential pitfalls that can come between bare metal and a gleaming, durable paint job. DeNisio is operations manager of modifications for Dassault Falcon Jet Wilmington, the relatively new owner of the paint shop he has worked in for 27 years. Dassault Falcon Jet bought the Wilmington, Del. Atlantic Aviation facility in late 2000, and a new paint shop now under construction represents about $9 million of the airframer’s planned $30 million investment in upgrading the service facility.

A couple of months ago Dassault Falcon Jet held its third ceremonial groundbreaking in as many months. Following official gold-spade work in Little Rock, Ark., in May (also for a new aircraft paint facility) and Teterboro in June (for a new DFJ company flight-department hangar), DFJ officials (accompanied this time by Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner) turned the first soil at the company’s Wilmington service center for a new three-bay, 40,000-sq-ft paint shop to replace the aging two-bay shop that came with the airframer’s purchase of the Atlantic Aviation base. When it opens next spring, the new paint shop will be one of the most modern paint facilities in the nation, according to Jack Young, president of Dassault Falcon Jet Wilmington. It will conform with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Title 5 regulations, which for the past half-dozen years or so have regulated the neighborliness of such facilities.

The removal of old paint and application of new paint to an airplane produces the potential for much pollution, in the form of sludge (old paint and stripper) and, with application of new paint, by VOCs (volatile organic compounds)–the toxic vapors produced by evaporation of the liquid that suspends the paint solids during transport and application–and by the overspray of solids themselves. In the new booth, temperature- and humidity-controlled air (typically 70 degrees F and 65-percent humidity) will enter the chamber in the ceiling and be drawn downward, around the airplane, and then into floor pits for passage through filters and then back to the ceiling for recirculation, thereby containing all pollutants within the facility and trapping them for subsequent disposal. The approximately $9 million price tag for the new facility is double what it would have been 10 years ago, before implementation of the current regs, according to DeNisio.

Chemical stripping of a Falcon 900’s old paint by non-methylene chloride, followed by a pressure wash and seam cleaning, takes typically five days with one shift and produces three or four 55-gallon drums of sludge to be carted away for proper disposal at $500 each. By the time the airplane has been fully washed, four more 55-gallon drums will have been filled with pollutants. The new facility will reduce the amount of sludge to be expensively processed by sorting waste more efficiently.
After washing comes etching and alodining, followed by demasking of windows and so on, and then a full remasking of areas not to be painted.

The first coating to be applied is an anti-corrosion epoxy-chromate primer, then a surface primer that is sanded, but not before hand-filling of all seams and rivet heads. With one shift, the process is now into its sixth or seventh day. Sanding takes another two or three days. With the new facility on line, the sanding and priming process will take just one day. DFJ removes engine pylons before stripping, because they can trap stripper.

The stripping that precedes painting, DeNisio emphasized, is a major maintenance function that provides an opportunity for the discovery of structural cracks or corrosion. The proper application of new surface coatings (adding typically 300 pounds to the bare-metal weight of a Falcon 900) likewise contributes to an airplane’s longevity. DeNisio estimated that only about six pounds of the weight of each gallon of paint actually ends up adhering to the surface being painted, illustrating the scale of the pollution containment process.

Application of paint by electrostatic or HVLP (high volume, low pressure) spraying methods reduces both VOCs and solids byproducts, and Dassault plans to go with HVLP because of the superior surface finish it produces.

The DFJ facility will have three bays: one for stripping old coatings and cleaning the airframe; one for preparing the surface by etching and alodining; and the third, 110 feet by 110 feet (large enough for a Falcon 7X), for final paint spraying. The first two bays will cover a combined 155 feet by 110 feet. In combination with more personnel (up to three times the current roster of 10), the three bays promise to reduce downtime compared with the current two-bay/one-shift facility. For final curing, the new paint booth will take the temperature to 115 degrees F for drying the base coat in about eight hours (versus closer to 12 hours without such heating), ready to be painted with finish stripes. Base paint for a Falcon 900 usually requires about 20 gallons, in two coats applied 30 minutes apart for good adhesion.

The Dassault Wilmington paint facility has worked with several paint manufacturers over the years, including Sherwin Williams and Omega Coatings. More recently it has been working with Delaware neighbor Du Pont’s Imron 5000, which the facility just applied to a Du Pont Gulfstream. Before the new paint shop is operational, Dassault expects to pick one paint vendor.

Bottom line for paint-job customers is that the new Wilmington facility promises eventually to reduce downtime to about 17 days from its current 22 days or so. The cost for stripping, prepping and painting a Falcon 900 with average stripes currently runs about $92,000. More elaborate stripes could add anywhere from $10,000 to $18,000.