Sunday, December 30, 2007

Exterior Referb - Part 4

It's time to make my way to San Marcos airport (HYI) where Tejas AeroService is based -- the shop that will be refinishing the exterior of 36G. San Marcos is about 30 miles or so south of Austin, Texas (AUS), which is an easy flight from Chicago. However, since I'm heading down at the end of the year I had a ton of vacation time to burn. I figured I'd make a mini vacation out of the deal. I decided to go to Austin by way of Florida. Why take a straight line when you have a super fast and efficient Mooney?

Leg 1, Moultrie (MGR) Airport
Moultrie, Georgia
I departed out of Gary/Chicago Airport (GYY) where 36G is based on December 20 (Winter in Chicago dictates when you leave). The weather was clear, so I hit the sky and started my trek to Charlotte County Airport (PGD) in Punta Gorda, Florida. The trip from Chicago to Punta Gorda is about 900 miles, which is outside of the range of 36G. The first leg of my trip was to Moultrie Muni (MGR), which is south of Atlanta. I picked this airport because it was outside of the Atlanta (KATL) Class-B airspace and they had very good references on the web.

The trip to Moultrie was a bit daunting. There was a major cold front moving from the east toward my path and it covered the entire state of Georgia. There was no way I could go around or over it, but fortunately 36G is fast and I was able to stay ahead of it.

The landing at MGR was a piece of cake. The airport is not very busy, but had a very capable staff. The service at the airport was awesome. They fueled me up quickly, had weather, free cookies and very nice facilities. I was out of there in less than 45 minutes.

Leg 2, Charlotte County Airport (PGD)
Punta Gorda, Flordia
I departed out of MGR and was on the road to PGD well ahead of the weather. The flight to PGD was spectacular. I flew down the west coast of Florida and had awesome views of the Gulf of Mexico.

The PGD airport was also very nice. I was even able to rent a private T-Hangar while I was there.

I won't bore you with too many details of the ground portion of my trip to Florida, but suffice of to say there were a lot of Beaches, boats and Food involved...

Leg 3, Lakefront Airport (NEW)
New Orleans, Louisiana

It was an enjoyable trip to Florida, which made it very difficult for me to leave. I needed a bit of motivation, so I decided I would stop somewhere in between Florida and Texas for a bit more R&R. Humm, what is between FL & TX that's fun? New Orleans of course ;)

Similar to the flight down form Chicago, I had to fight a low pressure system that just would not leave. This one had a ton of heavy precipitation in it. In fact, I had to delay my departure by a couple of days because there was absolutely no way around it (darn ;). The airlines were even having problems with this one. It was drawing moisture all the way up to Boston!

Shortly after I departed, I was fortunate enough to get a good controller. He let me fly over water, but stay close enough to land in case I had problems. This put me south of the severe weather, but right in the middle of a ton of restricted airspace.

NOTE: I love flying IFR. This segment of my flight would have been impossible if I didn't have my instrument ticket. I was in solid IMC much of the time, yet I stayed completely out of the bad stuff thanks to XM WX on board and a cooperative controller. In fact, I would have never attempted this trip without some sort of on-board weather. No way you want to stumble into this stuff. And it is very easy to do when storms are embedded like this one. Clouds look pretty much the same from the inside where I was flying much of the time.

The New Orleans Lakefront Airport (NEW) is 5 miles form downtown New Orleans, which makes it an excellent stop. The airport had significant damage after Katrina, so they are in the middle of a rebuilding effort. The FBO is operating out of a trailer and they are using old WWII hangars that are a bit beat up to park planes. They have a nice hangar, but can't use it because FEMA is holding up funding for the roof repairs. Although the FBO and airport has gone through some hard times, the service was impeccable. Everyone was friendly and helpful. I highly recommend the Flightline First FBO. They are the small local guys. Millionaire is the only other open FBO at Lakefront, but they tend cater more toward the big jets. Flightline also had $1/gallon lower fuel prices. You can't go wrong with Flightline.

Again, I won't bore you with the details of my New Orleans trip except to say there was a lot of music, food and fun involved :)

Leg 4, San Marcos Airport (HYI)
San Marcos, Texas

The flight out of New Orleans was, what else?...IFR! I delayed my departure about an hour to let some heavy stuff pass, but I made it out no problem. The trip to HYI was uneventful after I got away form Louisiana. A nice High pressure system surrounded Texas and it was nice, very nice to see something beside the inside of a cloud.

I made it to HYI with no problems. The trip was spectacular. I was also quite impressed with the Tejas AeroService operations. I will write more about my initial impressions of the Tejas facilities in my next posting...

Until next time, rest assured that 36G was safely put away in a huge hangar and is eagerly awaiting her her Extreme Exterior Makeover!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Exterior Referb - Part 3

Now that we have the paint scheme designed, it is time to turn our attention to finding someone that can transfer the 2D computer rendering onto a 3D airplane. I quickly discovered that finding a qualified paint shop is not as easy as I expected. Every paint shop out there wants the business and often says all of the right things; however, when pressed they rarely put their claims in writing.

When searching around I found a surprising number shops that will paint an airplane, but when I started probing about their warranty, turnaround time, issue resolution, quality, references, etc., many started backpedaling quickly or charging extra for the "custom" services. I felt like I was buying a used car when calling some of these shops. These guys are experts in trying to talk you into something they can do quickly in order to maximize their return.

I also found many shops that specialize in the 'cheap' and quick paint job, but the old adage that you get what you pay for couldn't be more accurate in this case. The discount shops will get over spray on windows, wont clean up their lines properly, have poor quality control, use automobile paint, etc. Stay away form them. They can often cause more problems, add unnecessary weight, and materially decrease the value of the plane.

Where to start
Aviation consumer had a good article about painting an airplane in their December 2006 magazine. It is a good read if you subscribe to them. What I like about Aviation Consumer is that they throughly do their research and then provide unbiased results. To prep for the December Article, they surveyed their subscribers and compiled a list of the top-20 shops as well as others that were rated highly. The shops that didn't make the top-20 were not necessarily bad. They may be new or didn't have as many votes as the well established businesses. No one made these lists that had any material complaint reported against them.

You do not need to narrow your search to top-20 list. The other shops are also reputable. I would, however, be cautious of a shop that didn't make one of these two lists. The Aviation Consumer subscribers are savvy. If a shop didn't make the list then chances are a number of complaints were filed against them. I would not contract with anyone not on these lists unless they have impeccable references from people you personally know and trust.

Aviation Consumer also ended 2007 by ranking the Best of the Best of the year. They rated two paint shops as the best of the best: Dial Eastern States and KD Aviation/Reese. No question these shops will do a top-notch paint job. I've personally seen work from both shops and their work is impeccable. However, these guys also have a long waiting list and tend to be much more expensive than others that may do equally, and sometimes even a better, job. The key is to do your research and give your business to someone that produces the quality you want.

Where to go with 36G?
When I started thinking about 36G's exterior referb project, I was fully expecting to go to Dial Eastern in Cadiz, Ohio. Like I said above, I have personally seen their work and many people I respect, including AOPA and Scheme Designers, are impressed with their quality. However, when I approached them with my project they were slow to respond and seemed a bit reluctant to take it on. They like the easy quick-turn projects. Ones that maximize their returns and minimize shop time. The scheme I ended up with for 36G is far from a quick-turn project. When complete, 36G will have 5 different colors and the entire plane is metallic. It will take multiple paint sessions and likely tie up a paint booth for a week or more.

Dial Eastern also balked about clear-coating the entire plane even though Imron Metallic paint requires it (the chemical composition of modern metallic paint will not gloss properly unless it is clear coated). They were also dismissive when pressed about the fine details of our project like using ChromaiLusion accents, replacing the CAMLOC fasteners, painting removable pieces (e.g. gear doors, cowling, belly panel, etc.) off of the plane and other fine details I wanted. They eventually quoted the project, but they did not quote everything requested. Here's a portion of their response to me:
  • First we use only DuPont Imron paint.
  • Second, we won't clear coat an airplane (except for over Chromailusion). You will find shops that do and shops that won't. We are in the "won't" category... Clearcoating also takes an enormous amount of sanding and coating to be done right on an airplane so the cost of painting your plane will go up quite a bit.
  • Third, Chromalusion is a very expensive and adds to the cost of the scheme. There is a base value color that goes down first, then the product then the clear coat. Its just a time intense process.
I sincerely believe these guys do a solid job for standard paint schemes, but I got the since that their plan is to nickel and dime you after you are there. What concerned me the most was their repeated comments about the time it takes to do something. They stated this several times throughout the quote and phone conversations. There is no question in my mind that anything out of the ordinary will generate significant up charges that could add thousands of dollars to the quote. Suffice of to say, my experience with Dial Eastern was not what I expected.

My unexpected experience with Dial Eastern set me off on a quest that took several months of research to complete. I spoke with everyone I know that has painted their plane, I called many of the Aviation Consumer shops listed above and explored the field at Oshkosh looking for owners of planes that had spectacular paint jobs.

My research kept bringing me to a small shop just outside of Austin Texas called Tejas Aero Services. Their owner, Mike Van Sicklen, retired from a lucrative career in the North and he acquired this shop a few years back. He seems to love aviation and got into the aircraft painting business for more than simply making a few bucks. I met Mike and his shop foreman, Donnie McKee, at the Mooney MAPA convention in San Antonio Texas earlier this year. It was instantly clear to me that these guys know the airplane painting business inside and out. I was very impressed their knowledge, their attention to detail and their facilities. Here's a quote off of their website that says it better than I can:
"We only know one way to paint your aircraft. We aim for perfection, and strive to give you a flawless airplane under the paint. We do not offer cheap or even “basic” paint jobs, and would never allow a project reflecting less than our best efforts to leave our shop. You may find cheaper or more expensive paint jobs, but we feel safe in saying that you will not find a better paint job."
Of course anyone can say they do good work, but do they stand behind it? The only way to find out if what a shop claims is true is to check references and the reputation of the people referencing them. Here are a few that speak highly of Tejas Aero:
  • Mooney Airplane Company – Kerrville, TX
    Tom Canavera 830-792-2906
    Tejas Aero Services completes at least three production Mooney's per month.
  • Integrity Aero – San Antonio, TX
    David Welch, President 210-375-2500
    Tejas performs the paint and interior refurbishment for the “Integrity Edition” Cessna 414A aircraft.
  • Ram Aircraft – Waco, TX
    David Seesing, Sales Manager 254-752-8381
    Ram Aircraft is the leading engine replacement company in the US. Tejas is Ram’s recommended shop.
  • Premier Aviation - Sanford, FL
    Frank Norman, Owner 407-585-3548
    Tejas AeroServices has been selected to refurbish their Cessna 414As.
Yes, that's right...Mooney Aircraft sends three production Mooney's to them every month! They would send all of them if Tejas had the time to do the work. In fact, Tejas paints all of Mooney's show planes. Here are some examples of their Mooney workmanship. To view more planes they've painted click here:

Another thing that I like about Tejas is they were honest with their quotes. They submit a fixed bid for their services. You can have one color or 10 and it is the same base price. ChromaiLusion paint was the only thing that was outside of the ordinary and added $1K to the price. They also include 8 hours of prep work and will only exceed these prices if significant metal damage is found when they strip the plane. All parts that are removable are painted off of the airplane, all hardware is replaced and they fully guarantee their work.

Key considerations
Painting a plane is a complex project to undertake. It takes a lot of time and skill to do it right. There are many components that go into a top quality paint job, but here are a few key considerations to keep in mind.

First, an aircraft should be completely stripped down to bare metal. It is very important to get down to the surface and inspect it for corrosion and undocumented damage. Paint can hide things that could kill you or destroy your perfectly good airplane! Do not skip this step!

It is also important that the metal is properly etched and Alodined within 24 hours after the striping to protect it properly. Discount shops often skip this step because it is costly. Don't even think about it. If you don't Alodine an airplane quickly, the metal will start corroding. Paint will cover up damage that will continue to deteriorate the metal from the inside out. Also be cautious of buying a plane that has been painted that doesn't specifically indicate they Alodined and Etched the metal prior to painting in the logbook entry.

Second, the prep work needs to be done right. It is illegal to put body filler on control surfaces or to cover up significant metal damage. Body filler should only be used sparingly to take out small imperfections. Any areas requiring heavy body filler should be repaired by a skilled airframe craftsman.

Third, the shop needs to have someone that is experienced laying out complex design schemes. Proper layout work is critical to a successful project:

Fourth, a good shop will spend several days cleaning up the fine details that include using new stainless steel airframe hardware, removing tape marks and cleaning up the lines:

Finally, the end result should be worthy of a press release:

I've completed the design process, I've picked the paint shop, now it's time to ferry 36G to Austin for her Extreme Makeover and name change to N252Q!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Exterior Referb - Part 2

Creating a unique paint scheme is one of the most rewarding aircraft reiteration steps you can take. A good design can instantly transform a non-descript airplane into the center of attention every time you go anywhere. Nailing down a one-of-a-kind masterpiece you are proud of, however, takes time and commitment up front to get it right.

Creating the design is not something that you want to rush. The planning should start months before the aircraft is scheduled to be painted. In fact, 36G's design sessions with Scheme Designers started in May 2007 and the first renderings were posted on June 20, 2007. We finalized the design early December, which worked out to 7 months of daily/weekly phone calls & emails to complete.

N252Q Design Process
The secret of a good design is to do your homework and be prepared to spend time reviewing each rendering carefully. If you want something truly unique you have to guide the design team through the process. The more time you spend with them the better the outcome. I chose to use Scheme Designers because they have the industry expertise and know what works and what doesn't; however, it was up to me to guide them through creating what I wanted. If they are good, they are busy. They will not spend a lot of time on your project unless you stay on top of them.

It took about a month of emails and a couple of conference calls to convey my ideas about 36G to the design team. They then created the initial renderings and posted them on their website:

The first batch of designs are intended to gage what you are going for. They are typically radically different approaches. We reviewed the first designs and I liked some of the colors and concepts, but the flow wasn't quite right. We then combined elements from each rendering that I liked in order to generate the next series:

As you can see form the above photos, the lines started to flow, the Mooney logo was incorporated into the design, the tail became more dominant, etc., but it still wasn't quite right. The logo was too big and didn't fit properly on the tail. The lines didn't balance well from front to back...

Keeping it Simple
The design process can be daunting -- especially if you haven't done this before. What I found helpful is to initially look at the renderings as a whole form a distance and answer some basic questions. Does it look right? If not, then what doesn't? Do you like the colors? Does the design seem to balance? Does the N-Number placement fit into the design? etc...

NOTE: What I do is print the designs on a large-format printer and hang them on a wall in my office. I also pick the rendering I like the most and set it as my computer wallpaper. Looking at these every day guarantees that I spend quality time with each design without having to intentionally stop everything to review them.

After you get things balancing from a distance then zero in on each section ignoring everything else. On 36G, I started from the tail and worked in small sections until getting to the nose.During each iteration, I jotted down my thoughts and sent a bulleted list to the Scheme Designers team. I then scheduled a phone call so I could guide them through my list. Graphic artist tend to be more visual, so a follow-up phone call typically makes the process smoother. All you do is repeat these steps until the side is done. Then roll to the top of the fuselage and finally the prop, belly, placards, etc. Be careful about making a lot of changes at once. I've found that small precise changes are more effective.

Design Examples
The following links are good examples of completed Scheme Designer aircraft designs. Stepping through from top to bottom will give you a good idea of how a design comes together. Pay particular attention to how some designs have many iterations and others are fairly simple. It is clearly up to the owner to drive the process.
This is just a sample of all we went through. The entire design process took 7 months. You will have to stay tuned to see the final version after 36G is painted. I don't want to spoil the final reveal.

Next time, I will discuss the process of selecting a paint shop and key things to take into consideration before signing on the dotted line.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Exterior Referb - Part 1

People are superficial! No matter how good your maintenance is or how great your piloting skills are, you are graded on what the plane looks like and your landings! If you read this blog, you'll know that 36G's maintenance is impeccable; however, when someone walks up to her she looks like most other planes. Base white, two colors and two stripes...

36G is a very fine looking plane and I get a lot of comments about how nice the paint looks, but I want her to be unique. It is hard to be unique when it is impossible to differentiate 36G from virtually every other Mooney that was built in the mid-80's...

These are all fine looking 252's that many people would love to own; however, it isn't worthy of 36G's Extreme Makeover project, which is intended to take a very good mid-80's plane and incorporate up to date technology to make it as good, or better, than a new $600K+ plane. One that has Technically Advanced Avionics, one that has a comfortable and modern interior and one that has a state-of-the art paint scheme.

Avionics are fairly straightforward. You basically buy the latest and greatest Garmin and install it! There are some tricks that we will get into later on how to make a comfortable and modern interior, but they are all pretty much the same (leather). The paint scheme, however, is an entirely different story...

What is in a Paint Scheme
Designing a paint scheme is not as easy as it sounds. There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration. First is the airframe. Something that looks good on a King Air isn't necessarily going to look good on a Mooney. The second is designing something on a computer doesn't mean that a paint shop can actually do it. Whatever you come up with has to be do'able in the filed. Finally, the scheme has to be unique and balance from all angles as if the manufacturer did it. The scheme should be unique and flow from end to end without any awkward interruption. Everything including the placards and N-number needs to be included in the design. I couldn't tell you the planes I've seen that have a beautiful paint scheme and the N-number was clearly placed on it later as an afterthought.

Preliminary Thoughts & Background
I have been thinking about a paint design since I conceived the idea of buying a Mooney. I've seen tens-of-thousands of planes in my day. However, when you step back and think about actually designing something it is harder than it sounds. It was very clear that I needed an expert to help compile my ideas into something that can reproduced and will work on a Mooney.

When I started looking at aircraft that had truly unique aircraft designs, it was remarkable at how many of them were created by one shop -- Scheme Designers. And one person, Craig Barnett, their CEO. Craig has been creating aircraft paint scheme designs forever. He has created most of the modern Mooney schemes as well as many other manufacturers.

Craig's work is known throughout the world. If you've ever been to an airport or read virtually any aviation magazine then you have seen one of his designs. He's created practically every unique design I could find. In fact, all of the AOPA giveaway planes are Scheme Designer original designs including this year's AOPA Catch-a-Cardinal.

The process
Selecting the designer to guide me through the process was a "no brainer," but we still have to come up with the design. Craig has some canned designs you can choose form on, but I want 36G to be unique. A canned design is not worthy of our Extreme Makeover!

Unlike a typical artist, Craig does not design the scheme for you. He told me that everyone has different tastes and requirements, which make it impossible for him to simply say "here ya go." For those that want to pick a design and go...he created, which is a site that has over 5000 aircraft designs they have created. If you pay for the custom service, however, you get a truly customized service that starts with a blank sheet of paper...

Craig basically acts as a Muse and guides you through the process. He gets out of you what you want quite effectively. The process is involved, but basically starts out with a phone interview. He records things you like and dislike and then he goes to work building the initial design elements that you tweak as many times as you want until you get what you are going after. They work on a fixed bid and have worked on some designs for years. The speed and quality of the process is ultimately up to you.

Crating a new design is a daunting task. I started by doing research on websites, reviewing air show photos, cutting out advertisements in flying magazines and browsing aircraft for sale sites such as Trade-A-Plane and Controller. The key was to find planes with elements that I like and then explain to Craig what I liked about them. The more photos I sent the better he was able to get a since of what I was going for. It took about a month of emailing and phone conversations before the first designs were presented to me.

Here's a list of some sites I reviewed:
My research created quite a directory of photos of airplanes with comments about what I liked and didn't like as well as some basic design guidelines:
  • I want a design that uses shading and lines to make the plane look long, wide and fast. I have a short body Mooney with small side windows. I want long flowing lines that give the since of speed and scale.
  • I like the use of shading and flowing stripes and ribbons instead of hard straight lines.
  • I like the use of color on the top of the cowl & wing tips, not on the bottom like most.
  • I want to keep the main base colors of the bird (Blue & Maroon), but want to use something other than white as the base coat.
  • The tail of the Mooney is what makes a Mooney a Mooney. I want to highlight it; however, I do not want the standard swoop that everyone is doing now days (the half circle from bottom to top). This looked nice at first, but it is a design too easy to replicate and everyone is doing it.
  • I would like to incorporate the Mooney Logo (old eagle not new one). I also want to incorporate the Turbo 252 TSE" name into the scheme.
  • Whatever we do needs to be unique, but something that mainstream buyers would appreciate if we sell some day.
After sharing my comments with Craig, the Scheme Designers Team went to work on the design. Next time I'll show you some of the initial designs and more details on how we tweaked them to get it to the final product.