What I learned about aircraft paint at Oshkosh

We attended an interesting talk by Craig Barnett of Scheme Designers at Oshkosh and learned more than we thought possible about aircraft paint. (See EAA Webinar version for the images.)

Other than working to develop new designs for manufacturers, why does his job exist? Why wouldn’t people just paint an old plane in the latest factory scheme? Barnett says that if there have been any changes in the airframe design people will look at it and perceive that someone is trying to tart up the old plane with lipstick.

Why paint any design at all? Why not paint the plane white and wrap it with plastic, the way that modern commercial vehicles are done? He said that AircraftWraps will do this for you but that the wraps don’t work as well on planes as they do on cars. Panels come off every year for inspection. Exhaust gets into the vinyl (the “tailpipe” of a plane is not at the tail). Sun exposure is bad, though solid vinyl stripes last longer than printed (Our 2005 Cirrus SR20 is all-white with some vinyl stripes from the factory and it still looks pretty good after a mostly-hangared 13 years.) Barnett’s choice for elaborate designs is to bring in an airbrush artist and put the design into paint. He does caution that any kind of paint scheme that involves a fade will be difficult to touch up if damaged.

Barnett recommended a dark color on the bottom of the plane (a “split base”) for a clean appearance (belly oil won’t show) and also for “more ramp presence” and 60-70 percent of his clients choose this. He is not a fan of the polished spinner: “painted spinners add length to the plane.” What if the whole aircraft is polished? Barnett was a fan of LoPresti Knot Wax as a sealant (I can’t find any source for this).

One of Barnett’s ideas was to consider adding a paint design to the top of the wing “so that you can enjoy it while flying.”

Wherever there is an aircraft owner wealthy enough to purchase a repaint there is a potential family court plaintiff and lawyer standing by. Barnett said “use the wife’s initials in the tail number” to reduce the risk of being sued for divorce. (The talk was in Wisconsin and therefore there was no limit on the profits that could have been earned via a casual sexual encounter during AirVenture. A litigator might want to set up shop at the adjacent BeerVenture, run by a landowner who has thus far rebuffed EAA’s attempts to buy him out; BeerVenture has a big sign promising “Bikini Bartenders”)

When it is smart to have a wild ugly paint scheme? He show ZS-OHK, a flight school’s plane in South Africa. They paint their Cessnas in crazy patterns and park them next to a road where customers are drawn in.

Barnett showed a lot of ugly and “not smart” designs. One bad idea is interrupting stripes to stick in a tail number. The tail number needs to be part of the design. Stripes should follow airflow. The tail has to balance the rest of the plane.

What about coming up with a design for a Cirrus? Barnett explained that the reason newer Cirruses are no longer simply white is that the factory worked with Sherwin-Williams (the “Jet Glo” folks) to develop paints of color (not “colored paints”!) that reflect sufficient light/heat to be used on a composite aircraft. But why are these schemes mostly so ugly? Barnett says that the challenge of designing a scheme for the Cirrus is that the plane is “pregnant” (let’s look to our own waistlines rather than blaming Duluth for this!). So a paint scheme has to distract the viewer’s eye from the fundamental shape of the airplane, unlike with, say, a TBM where the shape is inherently attractive.

Cirrus had brought some “Carbon Exterior” schemes to the show and we liked them better than any of the previous factory schemes. How to adapt this scheme to an older plane? Replace the “CARBON” on the tail with “NOT CARBON”?

Where to get all of this done? We heard good things about KD Aviation in Newburgh, New York, Flying Colors in Benton Harbor, Michigan (not to be confused with Flying Colours Corp., painters of Gulfstreams), and Corrigan in Hondo, Texas (they do Gulfstreams but somehow are also able to paint small planes at a reasonable cost).

Nobody could answer the question of why this labor-intensive craft of sanding down and refinishing airplanes has not migrated to Mexico. In fact, Mexican owners are flying their planes up to Texas for paint! Econ 101 would never have predicted that. Mexicans don’t come up to Colorado to find wood craftsmen to build stuff in their houses. Why can’t this skill be developed and practiced down in Mexico where labor is comparatively inexpensive?

[Based on my visits to U.S. paint shops, every person holding a sander up to a Gulfstream in a 100-degree hangar has identified as a man. So I had to refrain from asking when there would be a social justice movement to get Americans who identify as women into this career.]

My current dream: Strip off all of the factory stripes on the SR20. Buff the white paint. Apply wraps and decals that make the entire plane look like a golden retriever. By the time it reaches the 5-year point that Barnett says is the life of a vinyl-based job, the novelty will have worn off.


4 thoughts on “What I learned about aircraft paint at Oshkosh

  1. Speaking of which, does Mindy the Crippler get to ride in the Cirrus? My dog doesn’t like it cause of the noise. We bought him the doggy headphones but he can’t keep them on.

  2. Mindy is pampered with pressurization and PT6 smoothness! (Most of the Cirrus trips we do are ones where it makes more sense to leave Mindy home with her grandparents. She doesn’t need to be baking on the hot sand near Provincetown in July.)

  3. Vinly wrapping will suffer from “sun”? Interesting 🙂 Cars that are wrapped are constantly out in the sun, for years, and it works well. My airplane otoh is flying 100-150 every year and lives in a dark hangar the rest of the time.

    Not a good argument.

  4. Alexis: Come to our airport where the difference between tie-down and hangar is nearly $8,000 per year and you’ll see plenty of planes that live outdoors. I’m only quoting Barnett, but if you think about it the typical wrapped car has to survive only a few years in the sun. The business will upgrade to a newer leased vehicle (thanks to the government’s welfare program for leasing companies making it unreasonable for a small business to own) after 3-4 years, right? Whereas an airplane, even if it lives outside, may go 20-30 years with the same paint.

Comments are closed.