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Stepping Away from the Gray

Thursday, September 15, 2016

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When it comes to painting military aircraft, painters in the U.S. Air Force are accustomed to applying one color more than others: the customary flat gray seen on weapons systems around the globe.

But paint crews in the Corrosion Control Flight department at Georgia’s Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex recently got to flex their skills with a new glossy paint job, the base announced.

A Coast Guard C-130H modified for transfer to the U.S. Forest Service, where it will eventually assist in firefighting missions, came through the flight line at Robins to be painted in the colorful new USFS paint scheme.

Nine different colors are represented on the aircraft, ranging from yellow and light gray to matte black and white, but the standout color to base personnel is the bright poppy red. The red paint spans from the nose to the tail and under both wings, along with a thin layer of black that carefully curves along the edges of the former’s dominant color scheme, the base said.

US Air Force colorful paint job
Tommie Horton, U.S. Air Force

Sam Vigil, 402nd Aircraft Maintenance Support Squadron aircraft painter, touches up paint on a Coast Guard C-130H recently modified for transfer to the U.S. Forest Service.

The C-130H paint job marks the first time the new USFS paint scheme has been applied to an aircraft.

In all, about 80 gallons of paint was used to cover every inch of the craft.

A ‘Real Challenge’

The paint job posed a “real challenge” to the team of nearly 45 painters, according to Ronnie Harrell, Corrosion Control supervisor.

Hours of tedious work were required to carefully lay tape across various parts of the body of the plane. The tape was in place to assure they would achieve a precise fine line once a different color of paint was applied to the masked over area.

“What you want is a nice, sharp edge on those areas where colored paint is applied,” Robins Public Affairs representative Jenny Gordon wrote. “Putting down that tape didn’t involve a laser level of any kind—it was all done freestyle by hand.”

Taping challenges included areas where poppy red would be applied, adding stripes and adding tape under the belly of the plane. Curves toward the tail also required some fine-tuning and involved quite an intricate layout, the painters said.

As the whole job couldn’t be done in one pass, crews reportedly grew accustomed to the rhythm of alternating between masking, painting, drying, touchups, sanding and rinsing, and had it down to a routine by the end.

Because so many different colors were involved, there was a lot of waiting, sometimes as much as a 12-hour dry time in between paint applications, Gordon said.

Step-by-Step Process

As part of the process, the paint team seam-sealed surface points on the plane in a process similar to caulking, in order to keep water from penetrating into the aircraft and causing corrosion.

Next, a surface pretreatment product was applied to promote adhesion during paint application. Once the pretreatment product dried, the masking progress got underway.

Three coats of white were first applied over the entire aircraft. Then, when getting ready to apply the first coat of poppy red over a large band of the aircraft, crews made sure the paint underneath was dry and then masked the surrounding area to prevent overspray.

“You want to give the paint plenty of time to dry between the two so it won’t peel off,” said Harrell.

Working with Gloss

The Air Force painters also found that use of a gloss paint also contributed to the challenge of the job.

“You have a fine line between getting a good shine and a run,” Harrell said, referring to the careful technique of applying coats of gloss. “You have to worry about running with a gloss, but not as much as with flat. It will run, but not as much.”

He added, “It’s hard to get a big area like this painted, and a challenge not to have paint colors bleeding into the others.”

Several aircraft painters told Gordon that, when applying gloss, they are looking for “a nice sheen, not a heavy buildup.” In applying the first coat of white, they said, “you put on an even coat, and by the final pass you’re trying to get it to shine.”

They recommended applying a coat at a distance of 14 to 16 inches away from the surface. “Do it for a while and you get a feel for how things should look, or in this case, shine,” Gordon added. 

“It looks a lot better than I thought it would due to the paint system we used,” said Paul Lowery, work lead. “It’s good to put out something different.”

Harrell added: “We were really looking forward to this job. Once stencils were added and things started to take shape, it really started to look like what we do. The first thing people will see is that paint job.”


Tagged categories: Aerospace; Coating Application; Gloss and color; Masking; Military; North America; Paint application; Sanding and hand tool cleaning; U.S. Air Force

Comment from Dustin Wroten Sr., (9/15/2016, 6:57 AM)

What no picture of the completed job?

Comment from M. Halliwell, (9/15/2016, 10:54 AM)

I did a little digging and came up with this page that shows the paint job:

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