Art at 40,000 Feet

Art at 40,000 Feet

With thousands of privately owned aircraft and business jets in the worldwide fleet, how do you make yours standout? To find out, one owner pulled together a crack team of experts including a scheme designer, an experienced paint shop and the paint manufacturer, to come up with something really unique. And the results are amazing.

A Gulfstream 550 owner contacted Jonathan McCormick, owner of Plane Schemer – an aircraft scheme design service located in Gadsden, Ala., to design the paint for his newly purchased aircraft. McCormick says he knew he could create something unique and fun for this open-minded customer. And that is exactly what he did. Located at the Northeast Alabama Regional Airport, McCormick says he “specializes in combining the beauty of flight and color to create incredible custom paint and vinyl designs for all aircraft types.” But it took a team that included McCormick’s design services, Constant Aviation’s painting expertise and the unique matte paint Sherwin-Williams offered, to bring the scheme to life.

To start the process, McCormick says they brainstormed with the client and started putting ideas and concepts on paper. “We start based on their ideas and thoughts and then we add some of our Plane Schemer style to it,” he says. Even if the client is not physically present, they can host a live design session online. “We’ll actually do a desktop share with the customer so they can watch us make the changes and we can talk through them,” he adds. He says sometimes customers have only an abstract idea to start with or they may have seen a paint scheme on something else, like a motorcycle, and want to translate that to their aircraft.

In this case, there was no particular significance to the design but was something McCormick suggested after the client asked about using matte finish paint. The client had another aircraft, had used matte paint on it and wanted to do that on the G550 as well. They agreed on black and gray for most of the aircraft and a bright blue accent stripe. “So the primary colors of black and gray are matte but the blue accent was done in a gloss to make it pop a little more,” McCormick says. He decided to also use a gloss paint underneath the pattern on the nacelles, winglets and tail which he refers to as a “carbon fiber effect.” That gloss black became the pinstriping between the pattern, which also added visual depth to the pattern.

Constant Aviation took a paint scheme from Jonathan McCormick's Paint Schemer aircraft paint design service and brought it to life on this G550 using mostly matte finish paint. Constant Aviation image.
Constant Aviation took a paint scheme from Jonathan McCormick’s Paint Schemer aircraft paint design service and brought it to life on this G550 using mostly matte finish paint. Constant Aviation image.
The Constant Aviation paint team is shown here with A PV1 that was a torpedo bomber in World War II. Constant donated the labor and Sherwin-Williams donated the paint for this paint job and the aircraft is now on display.
The Constant Aviation paint team is shown here with A PV1 that was a torpedo bomber in World War II. Constant donated the labor and Sherwin-Williams donated the paint for this paint job and the aircraft is now on display.

He says the design and approval process only took about a week to finalize in this case. “One thing that I really pride myself on is talking to the client enough to get a good read on what they’re looking for. If we’re doing our job well, we’ll be able to produce a design that they like very quickly. So that’s really one of the biggest values to the service,” McCormick says. McCormick started off in the business painting cars before moving into painting aircraft and ultimately starting his own business as a paint scheme designer. “I started off with the actual application so I know what’s doable and what’s not doable when we start the design process. I’ll always work really closely with the paint facility if they’ve already picked someone.”

In the case of this G550, the owner had chosen a paint shop already, Constant Aviation. Kevin Dillon, Constant’s COO, oversaw the work at their Orlando, Fla., facility. Dillon says their goal on any paint work is to work closely with the client, designer, paint manufacturer and his team to ultimately produce a paint job that meets the client’s vision. “We want to make it look the best that it can so that it matches the rendering. That’s where communication and the visualization with the customer, the designer and the paint shop come into play,” Dillon says.

For example, on a complex paint scheme such as this one, the nacelles are particularly difficult because they’re rounded and curved, as are the winglets. Other areas that may need adjustments, once they receive the renderings from the designer, include the tail and sometimes the registration numbers because of the way curves could throw off some of the work done in 2D renderings. Dillon says any curve or change on the fuselage can throw off the way a design may appear. This is when it is crucial to work with the designer and client to ensure everyone is happy with the solution. “We thought we were going to have to do a much larger modification to the original design. But we were able to work through it with Jonathan,” Dillon says. In the end, only small adjustments needed to be made.

Also early in the design process, McCormick began working with paint manufacturer, Sherwin-Williams, to select the right colors and products. “Before the trigger of the spray gun is pressed, we are involved,” says Julie Voisin, global marketing manager for Sherwin-Williams Aerospace Coatings. “Jonathan from scheme designers reached out to us in the beginning.” Voisin says it is important to consider not just color and finish but also the size and scope of the project so that they are recommending the best product for the job.

Specialty matte paint from Sherwin-Williams Aerospace Coatings made for a unique look on this Gulfstream. The only gloss paint is the pinstriping between the "carbon fiber effect" on the nacelles, tail and winglets and the blue accent striping. The scheme was laid out by hand. Constant Aviation image.
Specialty matte paint from Sherwin-Williams Aerospace Coatings made for a unique look on this Gulfstream. The only gloss paint is the pinstriping between the “carbon fiber effect” on the nacelles, tail and winglets and the blue accent striping. The scheme was laid out by hand. Constant Aviation image.

“When an aircraft is bigger, like a G550 or a BBJ, you need to make sure the paint is designed for that scope,” Voisin says. She advises that in a larger project it is important to have a “wet edge” so it doesn’t dry too quickly. Having a wet edge allows the painters time to paint one section and move on to the next with the first section still wet. This facilitates blending the two sections of a large aircraft that will need to be painted in numerous sections. “Especially with a matte or semi-gloss that could really show up on the plane. We wanted to make sure that it was something that wasn’t going to dry too quickly and would handle the heat and humidity of Florida.”

In the last couple of years Voisin says their requests for matte finishes has risen. “We are seeing semi-gloss and matte finishes be somewhat of a trend in the aviation business,” she says. She added that the pricing is similar to a gloss paint and is more based around the pigments that are used rather than the finish.

And while it does have some unique characteristics, Constant says it is very similar to working with gloss paint. McCormick agrees but adds the matte finish in particular needs special attention during the painting process. “It pretty much has to be done all in one shot, pretty much all at the same time, the same temperature, same humidity levels, because the shine of the paint will actually change depending on the humidity and temperature in the paint booth at the time.” He cautions that the gloss level can change depending on the humidity due to the length of time the paint takes to dry. The longer the time, the flatter it will become. “If it dries faster, the flattening agents don’t have enough time to evaporate and it’ll dry a little bit shinier,” says McCormick.

In spite of that, all agreed that it is not difficult working with the matte finish. No special equipment is needed and the same spray guns can be used for gloss or matte. It was a special order from Sherwin-Williams, however. “We are really confident with the product. I mean, when it comes down to that intricate design, it’s all about the mask being used and the expertise of the painters,” says Voisin. “The biggest part is just controlling the environment for the finish. “I wouldn’t say that it’s any more difficult than any normal paint job,” says Constant’s Dillon. “We have a phenomenal relationship with Sherwin-Williams. They’ve actually set up an inventory here locally so that response times are quick. We work closely with them in all our sites.”

Back to that unique scheme, McCormick says the toughest part of the carbon fiber design was definitely designing how to put it on the engines themselves. The design on the vertical stabilizer was much easier as they were able to provide Constant with a paint stencil to lay up on the flat surface. “The biggest challenge was the Coke bottle type shape of the engine. Essentially, we’re putting hundreds of rectangles on an engine that’s totally different shapes from front to back,” he says. “We took measurements around the circumference of the inlet, the circumference of the center of the engine and on the exhaust side. With a little bit of math, we figured out how much the size of those carbon fiber design elements we needed to change as they went through the full engine. It required that entire design to be laid out by hand and to have some skilled guys do it.”

McCormick’s Scheme Designer company provides a 15-20 page paint layout guide that breaks down every section of the airplane and exactly where each stripe should fall on the aircraft. Once the paint shop has that document, they begin the layout and can consult with the designer throughout the process, as needed. “It’s certainly one of the more complex paint jobs just on the layout,” says Dillon, although he went on to add that it was not the most complex one they had ever done.

With a complex scheme or if it’s a new product the shop has never sprayed before, Voisin says they provide support as needed, even going onsite. “I want to help them succeed in that paint shoot from the beginning. We’d rather be involved at the beginning.” However, in this case, both Constant and Sherwin-Williams were confident that onsite assistance wasn’t needed. “I have to applaud the competency of the Constant Aviation team. We work closely with them and they know we’re just a phone call away for any technical service questions,” Voisin says. “If we need to bring a service representative on site, we will. But in this situation, they had the right selection, they had a good scheme and we didn’t have to go onsite.”

Dillon says he enjoys working with all the paint manufacturers but that Sherwin-Williams is their primary vendor. “They’re great people to work with and they put forth a lot of effort to try to make sure that we’re successful in our business.” Take a look at the results and judge for yourselves.