New Paint, is it worth the investment?

By Fletcher Anderson (America)

There is a good chance that if your airplane has lived in the Southwest very long, you have a corrosion free aircraft with absolutely terrible paint. No matter who does the work, repainting it is going to be a fairly expensive process. Should you do it? We just went through the painting process with one of our trainers. Here are a few considerations that helped us decide.

The real function of the paint is to protect the underlying aircraft from the ravages of time and weather. If you lived in the Pacific Northwest, your paint would last forever with very little sunshine to harm it, but unprotected metal would rapidly corrode. You might very well need to repaint a very nice looking aircraft to stop corrosion. But we live in the sun-drenched Southwest. Here, in a very short time, the sun’s ultraviolet rays begin doing some serious damage to your paint. If what you have under that paint is fabric or fiberglass, you should be very concerned that deteriorating paint is letting those same ultraviolet rays do their worst to the aircraft. There is a very good reason why most fabric aircraft live in hangars, and most glass sailplanes get disassembled and stored in enclosed trailers.

Metal airplanes are different though. Take the tour of the desert boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, and you will see that the aluminum skin of those Cold War relics is virtually as good as the day it rolled off the assembly line. This means that if your paint is showing its age, you are not at all under the gun to repaint in order to save the aircraft. Realistically, you are probably painting just to replace some bad paint.

If we are talking about your personal aircraft, then the real reason for new paint can be put down simply to pride of ownership. Commercial aircraft are a different situation. While the airlines repaint frequently, most flight schools and small charter operators regard paint as an unnecessary expense. Their profit margins are very small. They would much rather spend their money on mechanical work, or even an occasional paycheck.

While these concerns are valid, I would also suggest these commercial operators take a look around their parking lot. Most of today’s flight students and charter passengers are very successful people with incomes in the top 10 percent nationwide. They drive to the FBO in new $40,000 plus automobiles with very nice paint. When they look over your aircraft, they can’t see the tens of thousands of dollars worth of engine upgrades under the cowling, and the array of little dials and instruments in the panel you sunk thousands into is also meaningless to them. But they can definitely compare your paint job with some rust bucket used car they wouldn’t be caught dead in. At least subconsciously, they are judging safety by evaluating the paint! Before you decide against repainting your trainer or charter airplane, think again about the market you serve.

Painting an aircraft is very expensive, at least twice the cost of painting a car, and you should look at several shops before selecting one. Our experience was that the difference in quality is far greater than the difference in price. We ultimately selected the nearby Jeffco Jet Center at Jeffco airport in Denver after seeing several planes they had done. Among their regular clients are Beechcraft/Raytheon, and Pilatus Aircraft, whose planes arrive from Europe painted base white. If you are repainting a fiberglass aircraft, look for someone who specializes in that kind of work, and expect to pay for it.

The overwhelming majority of airplanes painted these days get either an original factory paint scheme or, more often, the original factory paint scheme from the same make but a much newer model year. Our thinking was that for a personal aircraft, we might do that (in part to keep it conservative and inconspicuous enough to stay out of trouble), but a business aircraft should attempt to attract attention. Most paint shops will offer considerable help in this regard at little or no extra cost. Beware though that more colors, more stripes, and so on will cost more to paint. Jeffco Jet Center has an artist on staff familiar with computer assisted design. That process allowed us to evaluate and modify several potential designs, and facilitated transfer of the design to the aircraft. The Cessna 185 in front of us got a custom paint job inspired by a 1950’s Dehaviland Beaver, while the flight school 182 after us was due for a stylized rendition of a mountain range.

Much of the reason painting is so expensive is the required preparation. The entire aircraft should be stripped to bare metal. Before that happens, all the control surfaces, all the trim, and all the fiberglass and plastic pieces have to come off. The industry is changing over to low toxicity citrus/water based strippers, but it is wrong to call these safe. They must be handled, applied, and disposed of very carefully. Stripping is a process you just don’t want to be around without a protective suit. The stripper potentially damages the plastic and fiberglass parts, so those are done separately by hand. Our plane had been painted three times in the past without stripping, and all three old paint jobs had to be stripped off one by one.

After stripping, you are invariably due for an unpleasant surprise: not all of your 30-year old fiberglass or plastic parts will be reusable. The quality of resins then was not up to today’s standards, and the years of vibration and sun have done nothing to improve those resin-fiber bonds. In our case, the cowling nose bowls had become soft and so badly oil impregnated that the new paint would not stick. Choosing a reputable shop was a real asset at this point. Since no good used nose bowls could be located; we had to buy new. The first new ones we found cost over $2500 and would take a month to arrive. Jeffco Jet Center’s Bill Hiserodt spent three full days on the phone until he found Steene Fiberglass in Montana. The Steene parts cost substantially less, were made up the same day as the order, and shipped the next morning… and the quality was better!

Removing the old paint also reveals a host of little dings and cracks that should be addressed before any new paint goes over them. It is reasonable to guess that $2000 more than the base paint price will be needed for almost any older single engine aircraft to deal with plastic and metal work. A good shop will keep you appraised of those costs, so there is no unpleasant surprise at the end.

The aircraft control surfaces will be removed, not just to facilitate stripping and painting, but — more importantly — to be balanced after painting. Have you noticed those weights mounted in front of the hinge line? Improperly balanced, the control surfaces will flutter — a very unpleasant experience which nearly rips the yoke right out of your hands, and unless you get back on the ground very soon, rips the control surfaces right off the airplane. An A&P, not just a painter, must perform this work.

A car gets a quick wet sanding before the new paint goes on. However, stripped to bare metal, it would not be good to start sanding away your plane’s skin and rivet heads. Instead, the surface is treated with a chemical etch which must then be cleaned off before any paint is applied.

At this stage, a team of six or more people has been at work for about ten days to two weeks full time on the project. That’s why painting gets so expensive.

From now on, although the paint itself is very pricey, most of the work and the cost is over. Having spent so much already, you might as well splurge on paint. A good shop will offer you a choice of paint brands, but it is wise to trust their experience and go with the one they like to work with. The industry standard these days is two-part urethane paint. The ultraviolet light resistance of these paints is much better than what was used two decades ago. For a skilled technician the actual spraying process is not difficult, but it is involved because there are so many different surfaces to cover. Rather than just drying like house paint, aircraft paint cures by chemical reaction between the two components. An effective cure requires carefully controlled, relatively hot temperatures and low humidity. Well, we do live in the right part of the world for that, but spraying paint yourself in a T-hangar won’t be quite as accurate, and you won’t get the right cure if the weather is either too cold or too hot.

There are a few more options to consider when having your aircraft painted. It is worth looking at painting the door jams now if you are going to redo the interior in the future. For a real show-plane, you can even have the inside of the cowling painted. Gloss can be enhanced with a clear coat final layer. If you sometimes encounter ice, rain, or land on dirt fields, a hard coat clear layer can be sprayed over the leading edges of the wings and cowlings. Many people now opt for a hard coat of the entire aircraft, especially now that the newest paints no longer have tendencies to yellow in the sun.

Was having our trainer repainted expensive? Very. Will new paint bring a flood of new clients to our door? Only time will tell. Are we pleased with the result? Absolutely.