On The Fly

On the fly

Your aircraft is looking fine…

Aircraft paint design and application is an important and very public presentation of personal style and choices. There are no right or wrong choices when it comes to the look you choose – it is after all your aircraft and some choose to make this an extension of their corporate image while others prefer to blend in.

That said paint does serve a very serious purpose – preserving the aircraft against corrosion – the all time biggest enemy of the lightweight and specialized materials that create the fuselage and flight surfaces. How well a paint job is done and maintained are key and critical elements of keeping the value in your asset.

Where you operate in and out of and how you store your aircraft between flights are critical to the longevity and overall effectiveness of a paint job. Design and imagery aside, the elements of weather, runway conditions and sun combined with heat and cold can be a detriment to the amount of time between repaints.

There are some basic and serious considerations to all paint jobs.

First – you have to choose the service provider and shop carefully. More than one owner has fallen into the pit of taking the lower priced option at the time only to learn later upon a subsequent strip and repaint that last time was improperly applied and has been covering corrosion. A good provider knows the value of proper preparation and application so that the finished product no only looks good, but will also properly protect and preserve the aircraft against the elements. How long a paint job will last is a combination of the quality you start with, how well you maintain it or frequency of cleaning, how well you protect it during non-flying hours and the natural impact of sun, temperature, rain, runway de-icing materials and sand or grit that becomes airborne.

Second – how much experience does the shop you are considering have with your aircraft type? Not everyone can be a master of all types. You want someone with a good library to show of similar finished projects that match yours. Ask to see not only the photos, try to see some of their finished work – both recent and older. 

This begs the question how long should a good paint job last?

Most manufactures and refinishers advise 5 – 6 years – if you care for the finish and provide regular cleaning and good hangar protection. Over time, even a good and well maintained finish will develop cracks along seams and chips from debris – either as a result of FOD on runways and ramps or more simply the natural expansion and contraction an aircraft goes through with each flight.

Also read: Aircraft painting - far more than outward appearances.

You should remember too that paint adds weight to the aircraft – the bigger the plane the more paint required. It can be hundreds of pounds when you are dealing with mid to large sized aircraft. And that extra weight will cost you more fuel and means less baggage or even a passenger. Also, most will tell you that an aircraft should never have more than one repaint over an existing finish. In fact most advise stripping and full refinish each time.

Another consideration about where to have you aircraft refinished can be the amount of work being done. Most operators find the down time required is also a good opportunity to gang up other service events such as an interior update and some avionics or heavy maintenance. Accordingly you may be best advised to select a shop capable of handling all the work you have been holding off on. These sort of service support providers can also be just a bit more advanced in terms of their design services and more environmentally responsible choice of finishes and applications.

A good example is RUAG. They have sites in Munich, Geneva, Lugano and Berne. They have focused on not only the quality of their finished product, but also developing a process that gets results and provides environmental responsibility. RUAG go to great lengths to select and offer products and facilities and systems that are in many cases unique to them. And if you need more than paint – they are well positioned to handle all the other things you need done.

In terms of paint systems, things like a downdraft airflow system are in use by the better service providers – not just RUAG. This helps ensure better control, less environmental exposure and of course a better finished product. If you have ever seen an aircraft fresh from the shop that has to be redone through paint contamination, you never forget. RUAG and others like them have invested the time and money to make sure the paint goes where it should in a way that is controlled and focused.

For their part, RUAG also use electrostatic equipment in the paint application with less than 15% overspray.  They have also worked in the development and implementation of new approved base coat/clear coat systems, energy-saving paint operations, chrome-free paint materials and trained, environmentally aware employees. These things all count when you want to make a statement about your environmental impact and satisfy the growing demand for such.

More things to look for and questions to ask include watching for the little things that can determine a first rate job from a bad one. Case in point, does the refinisher use stainless steel screws?  Do they have a separate painting process for access doors and screws?  And how are they at stripping and polishing of frames and handle surroundings. These again are telling signs of a best quality shop from a cut rate one – and it shows when you look for it.

Remember as well that your paint job needs to incorporate replacement of maintenance and access signage, service point identification and so forth. You can just mask and paint – NOT - but the quality shops like RUAG know how to properly reapply such items and make them stand up with the paint job as a whole.  

As was said at the beginning the design side is a lot of fun and where most attention from an owner will go. All the best shops provide computer rendered illustrations of how the new look will finish your aircraft. But some – again like RUAG – have actually made it even more fun through the use of a Paint Configurator tool - an online way to pick and play with designs and colors - a significant step up from looking at paint chips or waiting for a rendering.

Some question just what a repaint will add to value of an aircraft – especially at resale time. In simple terms most brokers tell you that you to add the cost of the paint job plus 10% - a key enhancement to the overall value. So keeping your paint fresh and well maintained certainly has more than cosmetic value. Like anything, a little upfront time researching and reviewing will result in better end product and happier owner.

By Rob Seaman

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