No, you don't paint airplanes with airbrushes
By Helen Jung
EVERETT, Wash. It's 10:30 p.m., near the end of the second shift at Boeing, and Bud Jewett isn't about to romanticize that he's a Rembrandt on a canvas of aluminum.
But after working on the paint job for Boeing's first 777-300ER jetliner, he concedes that it's a rather unique job in aerospace. "You get a certain amount of artistic license," he says.
Using a good dose of that along with more than 8 miles of tape, 178 gallons of paint and 1.7 miles of paper Jewett and other workers at Boeing's paint hangar in Everett have in four days turned the nearly half-acre of the jumbo jet's bare aluminum into Boeing's newest calling card.
Painting a jet is more than window dressing. The paint, which can add 600 pounds to an airplane's weight, helps protect the fuselage from corrosion. For an airline, it provides a chance to be creative, polish an image and get advertising mileage out of a giant flying billboard.
"We don't build computer chips that no one sees," said Gary Wicks, 777 marketing manager. "It's such a visible product to have a paint job."
Although airlines have long indulged in flashy paint jobs, Boeing has kept to the corporate by traditionally decorating its initial models and test models in variations of "Boeing Blue" and red and white stripes.
For the first 777-300ER, the 777's extended-range version that rolled out of the Everett factory, the company loosened up a bit with a complicated design with five colors, a 55-foot map of the world stretching from Alaska to Australia along the forward hull, and thick arches of blue and red swooping down and underneath the plane's belly.
In aerospace's enormous version of the auto-body shop's paint bay a 12-story hangar as long as a football field and nearly two-thirds wider painters laid out the design on the 242-foot-long aircraft. Before the paint touched aluminum, however, the plane was masked with paper and tape to keep the colors away from tires, windows, antennas and other critical areas.
Crews of eight painters three on each side of the fuselage and one on each wing hovered over the plane on platforms that can ascend from floor to ceiling.
Wearing respirators and disposable coveralls, the workers used solvents and paints mixed to meet the color requests as well as specifications for environmental protection. After each application of paint, crews cranked up the heat in the hangar to 120 degrees and baked the paint for four hours.
The painting has to meet strict safety requirements as well as the specifications imposed by the purchaser of the plane.
The polyurethane enamel routinely endures temperatures as high as 120 degrees at takeoff from a sun-baked desert landing strip to as low as 50 degrees below zero while in the air. The paint stretches and shrinks with the fuselage as pressure and temperature change.
The Boeing design was envisioned to impart a feeling of "motion and speed, people in motion," said Wicks, who noted that the final design was one of 10 original ideas.
"We wanted a 'wow' factor," he said.