Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What Makes a Good Aircraft Paint Job?

A couple months back I wrote about picking the right paint shop and referenced the Aviation Consumer article on the subject. What I found interesting about the article was that even a top Aviation product research company can get a suboptimal paint job. These guys are trained to look for things that others may not notice and were even writing a comprehensive article on the subject. Clearly anyone painting a plane, including someone that is "in the know" like Aviation Consumer, can pick the wrong shop. I'm waiting on the next round of photos form Tejas, so I thought I'd write a bit more on what to look for in a quality Aircraft paint job.

The Aviation Consumer Experience
Back in September Aviation Consumer had their Mooney M20K 231 (N40CC) painted and wrote a bit about their experience in the article. A 231 airframe is nearly identical to the 252, which made this article even more reliant to 252Q's Extreme Makeover. They are both M20K's. The only noticeable difference between the two is the cowling air intake and the windows are squared off on the 231.

Aviation Consumer had their plane painted by National Flight Services in Lakeland Florida. I'm sure National is a fine shop, but in my opinion the quality of the work they did for Aviation Consumer's Mooney is questionable.

Video Background
The video below does a good job of detailing key things to look for after an aircraft has been painted. If you are thinking of painting a plane or are buying one that has been painted it is worth watching. Aviation Consumer asked Craig Barnett, CEO of Scheme Designers, to review their paint job. If you recall, Scheme Designers is who I selected to design 252Q's paint scheme. Craig is well known in the industry and is the go-to guy on the subject of painting aircraft.

Going into the video production, I doubt they were aware of some of the things that Craig found. However, what I like about Aviation Consumer is they are unbiased and tell it like it is. The video is an honest assessment of the quality of the paint job without being over critical of the shop that did the work. Some of the findings, however, concern me. For example, the right horizontal elevator has way too much paint on it. No way it was properly balanced. This could cause an in-flight catastrophe or at the very least cause abnormal wear on the bushings and other important things that hold the tail of the plane. And some of the findings were downright unacceptable. For example, they painted the N-number the wrong direction on the Right side of the plane!

The following photos and comments are directly from the Aviation Consumer article...
"Barnett squawked drips on the elevator,
top, and Wyatt touched up a bare spot,
lower photo."

"Oops...Craig Barnett points out N-number
shadows on the wrong side of the
numerals. The shop agreed to fix it.

I've certainly seen worse paint jobs, but considering this one was being done for a company that has the voice of the press, it make me wonder what they would do for the average owner. The shop also did "all of the right things" including striping, Alodine, etc. However, in the end it comes down to the skills of the people laying out the stripes and applying the paint. They have paint blow-by around some of the stripes they didn't clean up, they applied too much paint in many areas, they painted the N-Number in the wrong direction and they even have rivet heads that are bubbling up...

NOTE: in the video they referenced that the shop is going to ask the paint manufacturer what happened around the rivets. I can tell you what happened... 1) they didn't have the surface properly cleaned before they painted it. 2) they didn't have the paint thinned properly and applied it way to thick. This also adds unnecessary weight to the plane...

What I found ironic was that Aviation Consumer didn't pick a shop from their own list of top shops. National didn't appear in their top 20 shops or the expanded list...

In the article here's what they said about why they picked National over other shops:
"Why National Flight Services? Proximity, mainly. We have always advised that in buying major upgrades such as engines, avionics and paint, it’s better have the work done as close to home as practical. It’s true that these services are priced and provided on a national market basis, but they’re dispersed well enough that finding one within easy driving range—200 miles or less—is practical."
I agree that it is certainly nice to work with a local shop when you can; however, anyone can install an engine. Not many are qualified to paint a plane properly. I would not recommend limiting a search for a paint shop to a confined 200 miles radius. When you pick a shop, you need to pick one based on the quality of their work -- period! As I have said previously, an inadequate paint job can introduce corrosion and other serious issues that are virtually impossible to find until the damage is done. Painting an airplane is a major ordeal and expense. It's worth traveling a bit to get it done right.

Painting an aircraft requires a level of skill that takes years to master. There are very few shops that spend the money to employ qualified people. In fact, many hire painters form the automotive industry because they are cheaper and easier to find. Painting a car is nowhere near as complex as painting an airplane. How many people paint the under body of a car...? Of course, skilled people come with a high salary that you ultimately pay for. It costs a shop a lot of money to hire people with appropriate skills and they have to continue to pay them even if business is slow. Paint shops are not in business to do work for free. That said, however, my research reveled that the cost difference between a top shop like Tejas and a mediocre shop like National is very close. Do your homework before turning over your airplane to someone that isn't properly equipped to do the job right!

No comments: