Aircraft Maintenance Technology - Aircraft Painting

By Charles Chandler

There are many reasons to paint airplanes. Some include protecting them from the elements and corrosion, while others identify them as belonging to a company or organization and to personalize them. I would suggest that it may be something more, something in our human nature that drives us to paint ourselves, our homes, autos, ships, and especially our airplanes. It appears that we love to enhance the features, lines, and form of those objects we favor. Nothing enhances the style and shape of an airplane like a beautiful professional paint job.

The industry rule is that aircraft exterior painting must not only look great but must stand the test of time. Those that own, operate or paint aircraft know this is not an easy or cheap process. Painting aircraft is a labor- intensive, multi-step process that requires a steady hand and intense attention to detail. Generally, the paint process includes these steps regardless of aircraft size:

1. The aircraft is washed and moved into a stable clean environment.

2. At-risk components and flight controls are covered or removed.

3. A nonacidic, environmentally friendly chemical stripper is applied.

4. The aircraft is inspected, flaws are removed, corrosion is treated, and necessary repairs made.

5. The aircraft is washed with an alkaline soap.

6. All aluminum surfaces are etched.

7. All aluminum surfaces are treated with alodine.

8. An epoxy chromate primer is applied.

9. An epoxy surfacer can be applied.

10. A polyurethane basecoat is applied.

11. The paint scheme is laid out.

12. The colors are applied.

13. The colors are topped with a clear coat.

14. Touch ups are made and the aircraft is buffed out.

15. The aircraft is weighed if required.

Over the years painting materials have certainly improved. It also appears that air carriers are contracting out their aircraft painting to MROs that specialize in painting and have facilities that can accommodate both narrow and wide-body aircraft.

Cecil Field Commerce Center in Jacksonville, FL
The addition of the Aircraft Coating and Aircraft Services Education Facility at Cecil Field is an aviation success story. When the U.S. Naval Air Station at Cecil Field closed in 1999, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority (JAA) took ownership of 6,000 acres and 1.1 million square feet of building space on the 17,000-acre airfield. Senior director of Cecil Field, Bob Simpson says, “We inherited an abandoned airport.”

After a decade of hard work and investing $90 million, the JAA has transformed Cecil Field into an active, modern general aviation airport. These improvements made Cecil Field an attractive destination for government, private industry, and educational institutions. In 2006, Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) approached JAA about expanding its presence at Cecil Field with a new aircraft coating facility.

According to Gene Milowicki, aviation programs director for the Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) Aviation Center of Excellence: “FSCJ obtained a $10 million grant from the state which JAA matched to fund the $20 million Aircraft Services Educational Facility (ASEF). JAA and Florida State College dedicated that facility on Feb. 1, 2010.”

Flightstar Aircraft Services, an FAA-certified Part 145 repair station is the tenant operator of the ASEF. It offers the full range of MRO services from daily line checks to heavy depot level overhauls, avionics and engines upgrades, and passenger-to-cargo conversions at its Cecil Airport location. Florida State College and Flightstar manage the scheduling of the aircraft coating bay and large paint booth at the ASEF hangar. Flightstar leases a large portion of the facility for its MRO and aircraft coatings operations and FSCJ operates two classrooms, a dry lab, and a paint booth in the remaining space.

FSCJ aircraft coatings program coursework
On Jan. 10, 2011, FSCJ students began pursuing their Aircraft Coatings Technician certificates from Florida Coast Career Tech, a division of FSCJ. I contacted Aircraft Coating Technician program instructor, Terry Perry to discuss the brand new program. Perry is a retired Navy aircraft structural mechanic who specialized in aircraft corrosion control and painting. FSCJ had just graduated the first class of nine students and was starting the second. Ages of the first class ranged between 18 and 22, eight were recent high school grads, one a retired Navy vet, and one was from the construction trades.

Perry says, “Aircraft painting is a fast track into the aviation maintenance industry. MRO and painting contractors are always looking for skilled and experienced aircraft painters. Five students from the first class have already found jobs. We have a great program specifically designed to help students quickly develop the fundamentals and practical skills necessary to become a professional aircraft painter.” The Aircraft Coating Technician program is a 16-week, 600-hour program with a 40-hour (minimum) internship.

Students get classroom work in aircraft painting, occupational safety and health, environmental protection requirements, aircraft structures, aircraft corrosion control, paint removal systems and processes, and various aircraft coatings systems. They are taught to paint aircraft ranging from Cessna 150s to B-767s using Aero Chem, Akzo Nobel, DuPont, and Sherwin-Williams painting and chemical stripping products. They practice with DeVilbiss, Binks, and Ransburg electrostatic paint guns, layout tools, and tape and paper rollers.

Students are currently able to practice on aircraft subassemblies and 30-foot fuselage sections that were removed by Flightstar during passenger-to-cargo conversions. Eventually, both large and small aircraft refinishing will be integral parts of the course of instruction. With the schoolhouse directly adjacent to the MRO facility, students have the opportunity to experience not only classroom and curriculum coatings instruction, but also hands-on participation in coatings projects and other MRO maintenance activities in the facility. With the internship opportunities being expanded, many students can expect to find employment immediately following program completion.

FSCJ is also in the process of purchasing two virtual reality spray paint training systems developed by the University of Northern Iowa, Iowa Waste Reduction Center. Students will have the ability to get unlimited practice without having to go through the expensive and time-consuming steps of mixing paints, waiting for their projects to dry, and cleaning equipment, and it completely eliminates hazardous waste. (Editor’s Note: See the article on STAR4D virtual paint training in the next issue of AMT.)

MRO Flightstar and Associated Painters Inc.
Tucker Morrison and Reed Friese gave me a top down view of the aircraft coating operations at the Cecil Field paint hangar. Morrison is the Flightstar Aircraft Services COO and Friese is manager of Associated Painters Inc. - Jacksonville Paint Operations. Flightstar manages the MRO operations and Associated Painters Inc. (AP) is the in-house painting contractor. According to Friese, it takes a 30 person crew seven days, working two and a half shifts, to paint a narrow-body aircraft. It takes eight to nine days to paint a B-767 type aircraft. They typically use about 50 to 75 gallons of paint for a B-737 type aircraft. Most AP customers choose paints that are designated by airline or operator engineers and approved by the aircraft OEM.

FSCJ aircraft coating program internship
I asked Morrison and Friese about their involvement in the FSCJ Aircraft Coating Technician Program. It was very obvious that they were proud of their participation and helping bring this facility and educational program to fruition. Flightstar also donated $26,500 to a five-year scholarship fund. Morrison says that his company is committed long term to working with the FSCJ to facilitate students’ learning experience. Friese agrees as well. They feel that this was a big win for the Jacksonville area and the aviation industry.

Friese says that it has been a challenge for aircraft painting companies to find trained and qualified aircraft finishers. Now they have the opportunity to help develop a training curriculum for refinishers and to meet and observe those technicians that had chosen refinishing as a career field.

“We pair them up with our experienced aircraft painters,” Friese says, “because there is no substitute for one-on-one training. The students perform many tasks from sanding, to sealing, to masking, to equipment setup and takedown, to painting small areas of the airplane. For major paint shoots, the students shadow our painters and observe the teamwork and precision that is required to make a large paint shoot successful.”

Morrison and Friese say that they want to help FSCJ staff develop a “holistic” program that would closely match the actual painting process as it takes place in the paint bay. After the first class both suggested enhancements such as more flexibility in the curriculum, starting hangar work earlier in the program, and extending the internship.

It is obvious that this initiative is a work in progress and a great aviation success story in the making. The charter members: Flightstar, Associated Painters Inc., Jacksonville Aviation Authority, and Florida State College at Jacksonville are totally committed to building an Aviation Center of Excellence that can provide unique, world-class MRO services, education, and training to meet the work force needs of our industry. AMT

Charles Chandler is an A&P based in Michigan. He received his training from the Spartan College of Aeronautics.



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