Project Update: And the winner is...

January 31, 2008

Project Update: January 31, 2008

Paint voting wrapped up two weeks ago for AOPA’s “Get Your Glass” Archer. The scheme had been set, but the color choice remained. We asked you to vote between gold, green, red, blue, and metallic silver. The ballots are in. The votes have been counted. There were no hanging chads and the Supreme Court didn’t have to be alerted. But, it was close.

The initial paint process

Before we get to the winning scheme, we wanted to take a look at the initial painting process and talk about what N22ZT has gone through up to this point, and what your airplane would go through to obtain that perfect paint job.

In the case of “Get Your Glass” contributor Oxford Aviation in Oxford, Maine, the process begins as soon as customers show up with their airplane. Company founder and president Jim Horowitz said, “We inspect the airplane thoroughly when it arrives so customers can learn about potential problems before it gets to paint.” Thorough inspections happen multiple times during the process, but this initial look-over has the benefit of giving the customer a reality check from the beginning.

Because initial paint quotes are for perfect airplanes, owners are often dismayed when the bill comes back for more than expected. Often, it’s because of dents, dings, holes, or other airframe issues. According to Horowitz, an initial inspection helps the customer to understand potential issues at the beginning.

After the inspection, the airplane is partially disassembled. All the control surfaces are taken off, as are the flaps. That’s because they are painted separately and computer-balanced afterwards. Horowitz explained the difference between a control surface being in or out of tolerance is sometimes extremely close. “In some airplanes the difference is a feather,” he said. Oxford even accounts for the sag of the paint as the control surface dries in a vertical position on a support.

Next comes the masking. Lots and lots of masking. Windows are taped off. Fuel tanks are protected. Everything on the airplane where the stripping material could possibly get inside and eat away is secured with an aluminum foil tape. Inspection panels are initially left on for this reason. The edge of the panels are taped, however. At this point, the shop has already spent between 50 and 70 hours just prepping.

Finally, the airplane is stripped. Years ago, before damage to the environment was a concern and anyone with a hangar and a hose performed paint jobs, methylene chloride was the stripping agent of choice. “It did a great job of removing the paint,” said Horowitz. But the expense of disposing of the material, as well as testing employees on a recurring basis made using it problematic. Now, Oxford uses a mix of ester acid and hydrogen peroxide. Whereas methylene chloride took less than an hour to strip an airplane like the Archer, the new compound takes multiple applications over multiple days. Interestingly, Horowitz said the new stripper can’t be used on composites, and thus have to be stripped with sanders by hand!

The airplane is then high-pressure and high-temperature washed to remove all the small paint chips, etc. Afterwards, hand paint removal is done with fiber wheels to get in all the little areas the stripper didn’t go. The inspection covers are also stripped here. Finally, there’s another thorough inspection, this time also focusing on corrosion.

When all is said and done, you’re left with an airplane completely devoid of paint. Bare aluminum. Exposed. For many owners, it’s traumatic. How does the airplane really look under that paint? Horowitz said many owners are surprised at the many imperfections that show their ugly head at this step. It’s also where some additional cost can come in. This is where you learn that you need a new aileron. Or maybe a new piece of skin. Or in our case, a new aileron, new wing tips, and a new stabilator. More about that next week.

No recount required

Now that N22ZT is stripped, it’s time for paint. And that means we need a color. In all, almost 3,000 of you voted for your favorite. In the end, it came down to 11 votes. By a thin margin, metallic silver won. Thankfully, this is also the favorite here at headquarters and at Oxford Aviation.

As you can see in the photo (The airplane isn’t painted yet. This image is thanks to modern computers.) the silver is actually shaded from bottom to top. There will also be a treatment to the top of the wings that wasn’t part of the voting. The bottom of the airplane won’t be a true white, but rather a pearl. At least one top-end car manufacturer is using it (we call it Audi pearl white), and it gives a nice effect of having depth. Those who get to see the airplane in person will truly appreciate it.

Thanks for voting and stay tuned for the real paint photos.

Next week: Paint and airframe concerns

E-mail the author at ian.twombly@aopa.org

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly | "Flight Training" Editor

Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.