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MailTribune.com
  • Painting planes presents problems

    The work is much harder than most would imagine
  • ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Georgia — When cargo aircraft are overhauled at Robins, the first and last stop is the paint/depaint facility, and it's about more than making sure the planes look nice.
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  • ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Georgia — When cargo aircraft are overhauled at Robins, the first and last stop is the paint/depaint facility, and it's about more than making sure the planes look nice.
    The name of the unit, the Corrosion Flight, probably says it all.
    "You want it to look good," said James Cranford, the flight chief. "But really that paint is to protect that metallic surface from corrosion. It's very important on your older aircraft like the C-130s."
    When C-5s, C-17s and C-130s arrive for programmed depot maintenance, the planes first go to the facility to be depainted. After months of overhaul, each plane returns to be painted. The much smaller F-15 is painted and depainted in a separate facility.
    About 300 people work in the flight, and becoming a painter is a good bit harder than it might seem. There's a lot more to the job than pointing a sprayer at the plane and pulling the trigger, said William Washington, a painter and first line supervisor.
    "Painting is a trade that you've got to pay attention to the details," he said. "It's almost like a math problem. If you start off wrong, you are going to finish wrong."
    Painting requires more on-the-job training than being an aircraft mechanic, he said, because it's something that can only be learned by doing it, he said. The paint must be applied at a specific thickness — and that's not an easy thing to master.
    "It's not something everyone can pick up," he said.
    Painting such a large plane is a highly synchronized effort and is something of a painting ballet. For a C-5, the largest of the aircraft, it takes 14 painters, along with several others assisting from the floor. Each painter starts at a specific spot, and it's all designed to finish at the same spot over the eight hours it takes to get the job done.
    Once the paint is dry, various tests are done to ensure it was done right, including measuring the thickness and testing the adherence of the paint. The final step is application of all of the logos and stenciling, which are recreated in a stenciling shop in the facility. Among those is the flight's own stencil, an emblem in the shape of the state of Georgia, which declares that the plane was painted at Robins Air Force Base.
    For a C-5, it takes about 100 gallons of paint to apply the primer. Once that's dry, another 160 gallons go into the top coat. If it isn't done right, it could all have to be redone, which is why training and practice are important. "With an aircraft mechanic, you can go to a book and can read step by step ... this is how I remove this flight control," Cranford said. "Painting is not like that. You do not have that level of specifics. Once you get the paint gun in your hand, you can't read a book and paint an aircraft. It just doesn't work that way."
    The flight has acquired a painting simulator and plans to use it to give workers realistic experience before they paint a plane. Cranford said it has a screen and a paint gun, and users spray the screen. It's not actually paint but tests their ability to spray evenly and at the correct thickness.
    The enormous paint/depaint facility, 225,000 square feet, was completed in 2007 for $80 million, the largest construction project in base history. Cranford said it's the only paint facility in the Department of Defense that recirculates 80 percent of the air inside, which saves more than $1 million per year in energy costs.
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