Qatar - The art of aircraft painting
Written by and photography by Donal Murphy Photography
With the whole of Qatar Airways’ ever-growing fleet of 135 aircraft being branded in celebration of joining the one world Alliance, Oryx flew to Dublin to meet with Eirtech Aviation’s Andrew Richardson and the Eirtech team in their bespoke, climate-controlled facility to find out how to re-paint a fleet of aircraft.
What sort of space do you work in?
Eirtech has over 20,000m2 of paint hangar capacity. The facility in Dublin where the one world® paint scheme was applied is referred to as a ‘wide body’ paint facility, meaning that it can paint aircraft up to the size of a Boeing 747 or Airbus A340. Alternatively, we can paint a number of ‘narrow body’ aircraft side by side.
Is it a 9–5 job, or are there painting emergencies?
Painting aircraft is a 24/7, 364-days-a-year job. We work day and night shifts and so can attend to any ‘emergencies’ as and when they happen.
How many people work on your team?
This will vary depending on the actual condition of the aircraft and the process being applied on the particular shift. Typically, the team consists of a production manager, two team leaders, and 25–30 painters. The peak load of any event is at the start of the process while all of the preparation work, i.e. the sanding and chemical stripping, is being performed.
What kind of training does an aircraft painter require?
It depends because there are many tasks involved in refinishing an aircraft. We tend to refer to ‘refinishing’ as this includes stripping, preparation, masking, cleaning, priming, and of course eventually ‘painting’. Typically the painters who apply the topcoat are the most skilled, as the appearance of the finished product needs to reflect the ‘brand’ of the airline and must look good. Often painters start their apprenticeship in the motor trade but also attend training held by the paint manufacturers.
What are the main tools of the trade?
Of course the thing everyone thinks of is the spray gun but there are other tools too: preparation articles, paint agitators, and sealant mixing machines. The spray guns used by Eirtech are state-of-the-art electrostatic units. These guns place a positive charge on the paint particles at the tip, which attracts the paint directly to the aircraft surface. This reduces the amount of paint used and also reduces the amount of harmful emissions released into the atmosphere. When the aircraft is completed, specialised equipment is used for measuring the gloss of the aircraft (gloss meter), the thickness of the paint system (film thickness meter), and the overall texture of the paint system (wave scan meter).
Is painting purely cosmetic?
Absolutely not. Of course the gloss level and the surface appearance of the topcoat are important, but one of the main reasons for coating the aircraft is to protect it from the harsh environment through which it flies. Temperatures can go as low as minus 55°C in the air and as high as 50°C on the ground. The transition time from one extreme to the other is relatively short and this asks a lot of the paint finish. On top of that, the aircraft flies through hail and rain at high speed and this requires a durable finish. Aircraft use a variety of fluids, some of which can be aggressive to a normal finish, and lastly there is corrosion protection to think about. All in all, an aircraft has to be protected and look good, and all this in a very thin paint film (150 microns thick).
What has changed over the past decade or so in terms of paint technology?
Environmental factors have played a big part in shaping paint development. Products with fewer harmful ingredients are now commonplace, as is the drive to reduce the weight of the paint and prolong the durability of the paint finish.
Are there any colours that are harder to apply?
Some colours require an extra coat of paint compared to others, but the real difference in application is that of ‘special effects’ colours, which are either metallic or ‘mica’ (pearlescent). These require special application techniques to make sure that the special effect pigment orientates itself in the same direction in the paint layer. If this is not achieved the colour can look cloudy. Mica products are also more difficult to repair because you have to match not just the colour but the effect too. Luckily, Eirtech have a lot of experience in the application of special effect colours.
How is the paint tested?
The tests that an aircraft paint scheme must pass are wide and varied. They are tested in combination with a primer and sometimes a Clearcoat as well as a pre-treatment for the substrate of the aircraft. Tests include fluid resistance, corrosion, flexibility, and durability tests as well as others.
How are the tail fins and graphic devices applied?
Sometimes graphics are used, but these are not as durable as the paint. Mostly we prefer to use a stencil and then apply paint to the stencil. Our customers will normally provide us with a drawing of the aircraft. We then use these drawings to make the stencils that are used for the branding of the aircraft.
Other than main airlines, what custom paint jobs have you been involved with?
Eirtech are involved with many airlines all over the world. Often we are involved with lease companies where we have to paint aircraft into the new operator’s paint scheme. We are also involved in painting promotional paint schemes, such as the ‘Haribo’ aircraft.
Do you just paint commercial aircraft? If so, what are the unique challenges faced?
We paint all types of aircraft, including helicopters and military transport aircraft. These are painted matt camouflage and this presents its own unique application issues. It can be difficult to get a consistent ‘matt level’ across the aircraft. Matt paints also show hand marks, etc., so we must be careful with the aircraft once it is finished.
How long does it take to paint a standard commercial aircraft?
There are no real standards, but it depends on what needs painting, the paint scheme in question, and the size of the aircraft as well as the complexity of what we are painting. This could be anywhere between six days and three weeks.
How much weight can paint add to a standard aircraft, and to the new A380?
It is possible depending on the paint scheme to add a tonne of paint to an A380. The aircraft painting process can have a significant impact on the weight and balance of an aircraft. To establish the exact impact, Qatar Airways physically re-weighs the aircraft at the end of the event to determine exactly the change to the weight and centre of gravity of the aircraft. The process involves removing the fuel and all non-essential items like the magazines, meal carts, etc. from the aircraft and then pulling the aircraft up onto a set of specialised scales: there is one for each wheel to determine the exact weight of the aircraft.
What special finishes are used?
The wing ‘flaps’ have special abrasion- resistant paints that have Teflon or polypropylene in them to resist the friction of one flap against another. Walkway paints with a silica in them that makes them non-slip are applied over escape routes, and erosion coatings are applied to radomes, etc.
How long will an aircraft paint job last?
With the new systems they are designed to last up to ten years, but the reality is that they are painted far sooner due to a number of reasons.