Frugal Flyer: Sticky Solution

Vinyl Graphics instead of paint

May 1, 2009

A lustrous paint job can do wonders to an aircraft’s appearance—but at what cost? Aircraft painting is a highly specialized, labor-intensive process that requires great skill; lengthy preparation; and dust-free, ventilated, climate-controlled facilities—as well as protective equipment for workers and an elaborate series of permits and procedures and handling hazardous materials.

Painting requires removing and reinstalling aircraft control surfaces at a minimum. It also adds a significant amount of weight—up to 40 pounds for some single-engine piston aircraft. And scratches, nicks, and hangar rash can be vexing to repair. A new paint job for a typical aircraft can easily top $10,000 and requires weeks of down time.

Vinyl graphics custom made for aircraft can provide an alternative to paint for a fraction of the cost.

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AOPA’s 2009 Let’s Go Flying Sweepstakes Cirrus SR22 recently flew to Middleton, Wisconsin, for an exterior makeover that stripped the old accent stripes from the composite fuselage and added a custom scheme. The entire process took less than one full workday, and it involved no toxic chemicals, no payload-reducing extra weight, and no changes to the control surfaces, rigging, or aircraft paperwork. The graphics are designed to last for many years without fading or peeling. But if they get nicked or damaged—or our marketing department decides to change the airplane’s exterior appearance (hint: it’s going to happen this summer)—the graphics can be replaced quickly and easily at little more than the touch of a computer keyboard.

“Vinyl graphics have lots of advantages over traditional aircraft paint,” says Eric Niswonger, owner of Air Graphics LLC. “Vinyl is far lighter. The graphics we’ll apply today weigh less than three ounces. If the same graphics were done in paint, the weight would be measured in pounds. Plus, we don’t have any issues with hazardous material, respirators, or toxic waste. Vinyl graphics are less expensive, they last just as long as paint, and they’re environmentally greener.”

Vinyl graphics are used extensively on composite aircraft with smooth exterior surfaces. But they can also be applied to fabric or metal aircraft. Rivet lines used to present problems, but a new generation of vinyl materials can overlay rivet bumps smoothly. Cessna has used stick-on graphics over a base coat of paint for years. The vinyl has held up remarkably well—but stronger, more durable materials are likely to hold up even better.

And the graphics are being used for much more than simple accent stripes. Air Graphics, for example, has covered the entire lower half of a Cirrus fuselage with a single decal that adds both color and a measure of surface protection.

The process of designing and applying the graphics is remarkably streamlined. Designers work on personal computers to come up with a custom scheme, hit “print,” and the films roll out of a printing/plotting machine. Applying them to the aircraft surface is familiar to any model maker who has ever applied a decal .

Air Graphics is working on a process that could allow customers to design and apply their own graphic art. If that happens, expect the exteriors of the aircraft at your airport to be a lot livelier, more individualistic—and less expensive.

E-mail the author at [email protected]

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.