AOPA's Catch-A-Cardinal Sweepstakes - Project Update: Prime Time

November 11, 2009

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April 5
Prime Time

We apply the first layers of paint to your Cardinal

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With every step of the paint process, we're going the extra mile.

As we refurbish the 1977 Cessna 177B Cardinal for this year's sweepstakes, we've asked our shops to do their best work. Since Advanced Aircraft Refinishers specializes in corporate turboprops and jets, that includes a couple of special steps that you won't typically see on a light aircraft paint application. Add to that the fact they stripped, etched, primed, and applied base coat to each one of more than 280 pieces separately, and you have a lot of extra effort that went into this airplane.

The facility
When AAR's owner, Tony Dias, formulated the plans for his ideal shop, he had to take into consideration the many facets of running a top-of-the-line paint facility along with environmental and logistical solutions. You can't just set up a few curtains and a paint gun and call yourself a paint shop - not if you want high-quality customers and a friendly nod from the EPA.

The two-stage shop houses a strip bay for preparing aircraft for paint, and a dedicated paint bay. The custom-built paint bay creates a climate-controlled environment for paint application, and it does this via a computerized static pressure monitoring system, which helps maintain a consistent, yet barely noticeable flow of air through the booth. Adjustable doors allow AAR to accommodate a wide variety of aircraft.

The AAR team had spent hours upon hours over the previous weeks preparing the Cardinal's parts using a rigorous stripping, etching, and repair process, then priming and painting them with the base coat. AAR estimates that the amount of labor time devoted to painting the airplane this way would be equal to time spent painting four Cardinals in the traditional manner (as a whole airplane). At this point, the time had come to paint the big pieces: the wings, the fuselage, and the control surfaces.

Prime time
After etching and conversion coating, the Cardinal's parts entered the priming stage. "Primer green" evokes the memory of high-school locker rooms in some of us, but this shade of green on an airplane means all good things to a pilot or aircraft owner. Traditional zinc chromate primer (now often replaced with zinc oxide, because of the connection between chromate pigments and cancer) serves as another protective layer. (For more on painting processes, see " Airframe & Powerplant: Smooth Coats," August 2006 Pilot.) The two-stage epoxy primer donated by Aero Performance used in professional paint shops like AAR far exceeds "spray-can" primer for grip and durability.

Before we put down any paint, AAR took an additional step that it incorporates into its business-aircraft paint process: sanding. A sanding surfacer is applied after the primer, which is then sanded to a glass-like finish. This step ensures an absolutely smooth surface upon which the base coat can be applied, with no imperfections to mar the paint. AAR also lap-sealed all seams on the airframe, just as it does with business jets.

Prior to your Cardinal entering the paint booth for base coat, the booth went through an impressive day-long preparation of its own. All foreign objects were removed, and no one outside of the paint application team was allowed inside for the remainder of the process. The walls were washed down to drive down dust and other particulates, and the entire booth was cleaned. This step is critical, because any foreign matter in the air during the paint application can embed into the final finish - you can see the grit in lower-quality paint jobs. Giant fans circulated air to filter out any remaining particulates, before the room had its final once-over. After a total of five hours in "lock-down," the booth was ready for the process to begin - the green aircraft components, from fuselage to inspection panels, sat on racks inside the bay throughout the lock-down.

Tool from the trenches
4 picks for your paint

1. Quality can vary widely. Paint shop staff tends to turn over at a greater rate than in general maintenance, avionics installation, and engine overhaul facilities. Look at the latest job from a facility to get a sense of what to expect. Don't rely on photos - see the paint in person!
2. Keep an eye on the logbooks. The paint job itself is considered a minor repair, and must be signed off in the aircraft maintenance records per FAR 43.9. Other regulatory and airworthiness aspects may include balancing control surfaces (a major repair), replacing N-numbers, and updating the weight and balance on the airplane if it has never before been painted.
3. Plan for future repairs. The shop should provide you with touch-up paint, since the color mixed for your airplane may vary slightly from the same color mixed on a different day. However, oxidation and ultraviolet fading may change the paint's color over time, depending on exposure.
4. Mind the budget. Paint jobs are typically quoted in a fixed price, which should include everything in a standard application. However, if after the paint's stripped you find sins such as Bondo on your control surfaces, you'll need extra room in your budget for sheet-metal repair before proceeding. Most shops charge additional labor for these repairs, as well as for general clean up. - JKB

Our photographer for this stage of the refurbishment process, Gus Anaya, was made part of the paint application team so that we could get photos of the airframe going through paint. Just like the application crew, he donned a white jumpsuit and a respirator, and went through a clean cycle to ensure he didn't bring any dust or additional particulates into the booth.

Dan Gryder, our field project manager, was on site for the start of the process, and describes the scene: "After months and months of extensive airframe work that had involved total disassembly, cataloging, organizing, receiving shipments, and significant airframe modifications, the time had come. Hundreds of valuable labor hours had been spent just in the preparation for these next few extremely critical hours. The surreal atmosphere was one similar to that of a high-tech hospital operating room: The room was sterile, and the stakes were high. In the quiet of those last few moments, Tony gathered his team together and reviewed his unwavering standards for the application process, and then it was time to begin."

The airframe parts glowed inside the quiet hangar with its high ceilings, and an air of reverence surrounded them: We had reached a turning point in the Cardinal's refurbishment process. From this moment on, the airplane would slowly come back together from its parts and pieces, starting with a clean new finish.

Laying down the base
When it comes time to lay on a paint scheme, a solid base coat is typically applied first. In the case of the Cardinal, our friend Craig Barnett at Scheme Designers chose an all-over white for the base coat - a pristine canvas for the stunning design to come.

Dias' experience shooting paint in the sultry southeastern United States played a big role in how the paint system was chosen for the Cardinal. Because of the temperatures and humidity expected during the painting process, he has had a lot of success using Akzo Nobel Aerospace Coatings' Alumigrip top-coat system. Alumigrip is two-component polyurethane finish paint system, boasting superior color and gloss retention and abrasion resistance. When complete, the finish appears to have a clear coat on top, even though none was applied - it reflects like a mirror, and you can see yourself in it when you come to visit the Cardinal at Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, in a couple of weeks.

Our specs called for Matterhorn White as a base coat. To achieve a deep, rich look, AAR applied three coats of the white base paint. With a drying stage between each coat, the application took about 16 hours, with the total process (from start to "dry enough to touch") spread over the course of three days. And we scored a major windfall when the temperature and humidity on the day AAR started shooting paint hit ideal marks: about 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 40-percent humidity - almost unheard of in Georgia's hazy midsection.

The results? We have a beautiful, glossy-white airplane ready to come back together for its final trim.

- Julie K. Boatman

E-mail the author at julie.boatman@aopa.org.

         LP Aero Plastics Inc.
FEATURED CONTRIBUTOR
LP Aero Plastics
For more than 50 years, LP Aero Plastics has manufactured high-quality windshields and windows for general aviation aircraft. The company holds more than 1,600 PMAs (parts manufacturing approvals) for 500 aircraft, which it provides wholesale to aircraft maintenance and service providers and parts suppliers. All acrylic produced by LP Aero for certified aircraft is cell-cast, rather than extruded, for less distortion.

Jeff Pfister, marketing director for LP Aero, has preached the acrylic-care gospel for many years and is happy to help customers achieve long-lasting clarity in their aircraft windows. What makes him cringe? Use of any paper products or ammonia-based cleaners - those are the big no-nos. You can bet that none will ever touch the new "glass" on your Catch-A-Cardinal. Call 800/957-2376 or visit the Web site.