AOPA's Catch-A-Cardinal Sweepstakes - Project Update: Prepping for Paint

November 11, 2009

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March 29
Prepping for Paint

The beginning of a painstaking process







Ready for a field trip?

The next time you make it out to the airport, take a stroll down the flight line (or look closely at your own airplane), with a careful eye to the paint finish. From a distance, perhaps the paint still shines - and a good job will stay glossy for years if the airplane is protected.

Most new paint applications outside of the manufacturer's production paint facility apply paint to an entire, assembled airplane (minus control surfaces). The airframe is masked off and stripped, etched, primed, and painted. This process takes a certain - but reasonable - amount of time and labor, and it produces an acceptable, generally long-wearing result.

A lower-grade paint job, alternately, involves scuffing the existing paint to rough it up (so the new paint will adhere to it, in theory) and new paint sprayed over it. Many "scuff and spray" jobs you can tell on the spot, because within a handful of years - or sometimes much less - the paint begins to peel off.

Both processes, however, leave gaps in the paint that a close inspection reveals, primarily around places where the wings and stabilizers mate to the fuselage, but also around fairings, control surfaces, and other hard-to-reach areas. Paint (and the primer beneath it) is protective against corrosion and other airframe ills - so an application that covers up these nooks and crannies does more than just look good. We wanted the very best for the 1977 Cessna 177B Cardinal we're refurbishing for this year's sweepstakes, so we took another tack altogether.

Read on. You might think we're nuts. But the results are so spectacular I'm going to spend the next three weeks telling you about them - and you can come see for yourself when the airplane goes on display for the first time at the Sun 'n Fun Fly-In in Lakeland, Florida, on April 17 through 23.

The big idea
Those who know our field project manager, Dan Gryder, also know that he is full of...ideas. He'll be the first to tell you that many of them are half-baked, and between you and me, more than a few should never see the light of day. But from the beginning of this year's project, he had one big idea about paint.

We easily could turn the airplane into a showpiece with a good paint job - at AOPA we have learned this from our collective years of aircraft ownership and direct experience with sweepstakes projects past. But the goals with this year's Catch-A-Cardinal went even beyond that: to clean up a 30-year-old airframe, dress it out with new parts, and protect it for the future.

Gryder's big idea? After disassembling the airplane, we would have a pile of parts that we could strip, etch (for the ultimate in protective coating and primer adhesion), prime, and paint as we worked on the fuselage of the airplane. Taking care of each inspection panel, control surface, bracket, and fairing individually would take a lot of time - but the finished product would be that much more stunning.

So who could we talk into accommodating our grand paint plan?

As luck would have it, we had an on-the-field ally, a new paint shop called Advanced Aircraft Refinishers (AAR), owned and operated by paint industry veteran Tony Dias. AAR is a large turboprop and jet refinishing facility at Griffin; Dias designed the large, two-bay commercial hangar from the ground up to handle big, visible paint projects. He has the ability to not just paint an airplane, but to create a flagship for a company's corporate identity.

Dias agreed to participate in the project because of the unique opportunity it presented. Also, I believe now that his wife slips something special into his coffee every morning, because I have yet to see a harder-working man.

First steps
Our airframe refurbishment team from Air Wrench and Classic Aircraft Maintenance had already accomplished the first important step in applying new paint - a thorough inspection for potential problems. But we would find out more about the Cardinal after the original paint came off - even the rattiest paint job can hide tremulous damage.

The next step, then, was completely stripping the parts as they came off the airplane. Before the airplane began the stripping process, the paint team (led by Jerimy Burch, Joe Cota, and Daryl Kostowski) covered up any openings in the major pieces (such as inspection panels, as these were removed to be painted separately) and protected any fiberglass or mechanisms from the chemical stripper. The first set of pieces stripped were the control surfaces - ailerons, flaps, rudder, and stabilator. Often the first to get dinged, the Cardinal's ailerons and flaps were no exception. The wings went in next, followed by the cowling, gear legs, and vertical stabilizer.

After stripping, each piece was cleaned with an alkaline soap to neutralize the metal's pH prior to continuing the process. Then, the team etched the metal surfaces using an acid-etch chemical, and cleaned each part, ensuring a water-break-free surface prior to applying a chromated alodine coating. Custom Chemical Engineering donated all chemicals and coatings for this part of the process.

The closer inspection of the completely bare metal parts and pieces (made possible by the stripping process) revealed several opportunities for simple and effective sheet metal repairs in accordance with the Cessna maintenance manual and Advisory Circular 43.13b, "Acceptable Methods, Techniques, and Practices: Aircraft Inspection and Repair," the go-to resource for aircraft maintenance and repair. The project takes a serious departure from the norm right here: Even after a thorough inspection from our airframe experts, the paint team was still able to detect five minor flaws (dents and dings) in the metal that we could address and correct.

While the pieces were in various stages of the process, Dias brought in the heart of the Cardinal - the fuselage - to be stripped. For this process, we had left the original windows and windshield in for structural purposes; the new glass from LP Aero went in after stripping and etching, and prior to the rest of the paint process.

Once complete, we had more than 280 pieces of the Catch-A-Cardinal all shiny and silver, and ready for the paint application of a lifetime - made to last almost as long. Next week, we'll talk about the priming and base-coat steps of the program.

- Julie K. Boatman

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Advanced Aircraft Refinishers
New Jersey transplant Tony Dias has worked for some heavy hitters in the corporate aircraft refinishing business - and over the 23 years he's been in the business, he's formed some definite ideas of how things should be done, and how they should be done differently. He put these ideas into practice with the opening of his own facility, Advanced Aircraft Refinishers, at Griffin, Georgia, in November 2006.

AAR specializes in turboprops and business jets and is able to fit aircraft up to the Beechcraft King Air 350 or Hawker 800 into the paint bay. With attention to bodywork such as lap sealing (to fill in seams) and exhaustive final detailing, AAR produces a top-quality finish to appreciate for years to come. Call 770/233-4600 or visit the Web site.