Inside Look: Quality Begins with Aircraft Paint Stripping

October 25, 2022

Making a VVIP aircraft’s new paint look like glass instead of a golf ball isn’t simple. It takes careful masking, extra sanding, multiple coatings, diligent cleaning and much hard work to make a paint manufacturer look at a new finish and ask the King Aerospace team: “How did you guys do that?”

As with any successful paint project, prep is key. Here, Randy Johnson, director of corporate aircraft services, shares a closer look at an early step in the process, aircraft paint stripping, and some ensuing steps before the final coats and livery go on.

Johnson has been painting aircraft in Ardmore for over three decades, working at the Oklahoma facility even before King Aerospace took it over in 1993. He’s been with King Aerospace ever since, building on-the-job expertise and training our painters, many of whom have 15-plus years of experience.

Randy Johnson, Director of Corporate Aircraft Services

Mask it up and strip it down

Airplane stripping requires careful preparation before the first coat of peroxide-based chemical stripper is sprayed on.

Windows, light lenses and other parts must be safely masked off or become “toast” if the stripper makes contact. The same goes for non-metal composite parts like winglets or fairings. Stripper can degrade not only composite surfaces but also substructures. To keep out stripper, we apply multiple layers of protective masking material and use generous borders when we mask. It takes more work and sanding later, but it wards off accidents and damage.

Once the aircraft is masked, the stripper and aircraft surface are warmed, because that makes the chemicals more effective. Then the first coat of stripper goes on, usually at the end of a day’s shift. Overnight the material does its hours of work and the next day the actual aircraft paint stripping begins.

The chemical stripper goes on and does its work overnight, ready for all the elbow grease to follow.

Scrub and spray, scrub and spray

Some paint comes off in pieces when sprayed with water, but some must be scrubbed by brush. The stripper used is more environmentally friendly but not as effective as ones from years ago. And the amount of paint coming off varies, from lighter thicknesses on government aircraft to the heavier primer/fillers and multiple coats of VVIP and corporate jets.

We do paint stripping as many times as necessary to take off paint and primer and get the surface to bare metal. Apply stripper. Wait. Scrub. Spray. Repeat.

Next up when painting aircraft: sanding and coating

Now come steps where attention to detail separates an excellent paint job like ours from the work of some competitors.

All the careful masking leaves little strips of paint around windows, composite components and other parts of the plane. We sand down every one of those. Others may not and the ridges affect finish quality and increase wind resistance.

A King Aerospace technician sands every surface after the aircraft paint stripping process.
Careful sanding of every surface comes after the aircraft paint stripping. The goal, like every step, is to lay the groundwork so the final paint finish is gleaming and smooth.

Then we wash the aircraft skin well and let it dry overnight. Then we sand the aircraft skin lightly. We start with the entire crew of about a dozen sanding the bottom, overhead work that’s the most taxing. Then we split the crew off for different sections as we work our way up.

Another step we perform that others often don’t is sanding all the paint off composite sections. Because if you don’t, the thick coat that results is less flexible and more likely to degrade.

We also remove old sealant from lap and butt joints, mask the seams and apply new sealant to seams. We then sand the edges to flatten the sealer seams down nicely. The sanding is another small step customers notice and comment upon when their paint job is complete – because their aircraft looks better.

Every step of painting is labor intensive but quality means not cutting corners.

Prime and clean

Once we’ve sanded the aircraft, we apply the initial green corrosion-resistant primer and then fill primers to smooth over rivet holes and metal imperfections. We sand between coats and clean the skin with solvents between steps. Once the plane is primed and smooth, it’s pulled outside and we clean up the mess in the hangar. That’s a long process of power washing, squeegeeing and collecting the chemicals, dust, paint scraps and water for safe disposal.

Painting nears completion on a BBJ.

Every step and attention to detail, including cleaning, contributes to a clean, smooth final finish once the topcoat and livery go on. With a Cornerstone Principle of quality in everything (no excuses), we don’t cut corners with any aircraft at King Aerospace.