The Difference is in the Details

New Paint Adds More to an Aircraft Than Branding and Aesthetics

When it comes to aircraft detailing, there’s more to the overall process than just adding decorative striping, waxing, or buffing it to a gleaming sheen.

Comprehensive detailing is the end result that encompasses everything from precise painting to cleaning to proper scheduled maintenance — all factors that not only make a plane look good but also keep it aerodynamic and flight ready.

Detailing 101
Good detailing can occur at any stage of the aircraft maintenance schedule, from the routine, monthly A-Check to the all-important D-Check (the latter occurring every five years or so). This includes several key steps:

First, inspect the aircraft for any signs of leakage, abrasion, and paint erosion and repair any leaks as necessary. Fluid leakage affects the integrity of existing coating systems by softening and hampering their protective abilities, and is a leading factor in long-term coating deterioration.

Next, use a high quality cleaner on fluid stains, oxidation across the body, or carbon that frequently builds up close to the engines. After spot cleaning, the aircraft should be cleaned thoroughly, inside and out.

Examining the condition of existing paint is another key step. If any paint has eroded, a repaint might be needed prior to the final steps of waxing and polishing, even if an aircraft is relatively new. The need for repainting depends on the condition of the previous coating system, how it was applied, and the quality of the materials used.

The importance of paint
An aircraft’s paint system plays a number of important roles. It gives the aircraft a distinct aesthetic, promotes brand identity, and provides crucial protection against corrosion and other damage to its aluminum structure.

A high-quality aircraft coating system consists of one coat of primer and at least two coats of a topcoat. Like any strong structure, the paint topcoat is only as good as its foundation. New, durable primer/surfacer combinations should always be used, and some are now available free of lead and chrome hazards. These low-VOC, two-component, corrosion-inhibitive products provide faster priming and surfacing on all types of aircraft while also providing key environmental benefits. Such primers contribute to the reduction of the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for hexavalent chromium (CR(VI)) that meets the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) latest standard for occupation exposure to this chemical.

Using this kind of product allows paint technicians to first apply it as a primer, sand, and then spray on the same product again as a surfacer. This eliminates the need to discard unused product and re-mix another, saving significant time and labor.

Topcoat technology has also evolved as high-solids, multi-component polyester urethane systems now offer fast dry and cure times to improve both shop processing flow and productivity. These systems offer excellent coverage and protection for most types of aircraft. Notable features of such systems include excellent flow and leveling, good buffing characteristics, blister resistance, and six- to eight-hour cure times. Some of these coatings offer chemical resistance to a variety of substances, including Skydrol and other hydraulic fluids — delivering superior hiding and stain resistance, as well as outstanding gloss and gloss retention upon weathering.

Stripping tips
Coatings play a critical role in operation of an aircraft. A dull finish can affect aerodynamics and glide. Too many layers of old paint add weight and can affect speed and performance, overall weight allowance, and fuel efficiency. Almost nothing is more expensive than jet fuel, and the aviation industry is working to conserve fuel and money anywhere it can. This includes eliminating weight created by paint.

Weight allowance considerations obviously factor heavily in the decision to either repaint an aircraft over existing coating system layers, or strip the plane completely down to its aluminum skin and give it an entirely new, fresh paint job.

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