First impressions count
by Hendrik Thielemann
“One of the first things people see when they approach a plane is its livery – its paint job in other words. However, it is a significant last element that takes place during aircraft completion,” reflects Siegfried Geissner. As an aircraft painter, Siegfried makes certain that the first impression of his artwork is captivating when the aircraft leaves RUAG’s paint shop in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany.
“We can paint everything that flies,” says Siegfried as he sums up his job. And indeed every year the two dozen paint shop specialists give visual life to some 30 different aircraft. 12 to 15 aircraft are completely repainted, whereas the rest are partial paintwork projects. The spectrum of aircraft ranges from helicopters, private aircraft and business jets to airliners the size of an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 757. Whether the job is a complete repaint or a small repair, the team around foreman Siegfried always strives for excellent craftsmanship and outstanding quality.
Aircraft painter Siegfried Geissner learned his craft on the Dornier 228.
Esthetics and protection
The paint design of an aircraft serves the purpose of creating a memorable esthetic appearance as well as protecting the aircraft from corrosion and ultraviolet radiation. “A well-done aircraft paint job should last at least ten years. With good maintenance, it could well take twice as long until a new paint job is due,” says Siegfried.
Once the customer has chosen their livery, the paint shop team receives a scaled 3D drawing of the design. The paint shop team then begins measuring and setting up to transfer the layout of the design onto the actual aircraft. With the help of lasers, measuring points are marked on the aircraft by hand where needed. The corresponding areas are then covered with adhesive tape, and sometimes stencils are also used. “Manual work predominates,” explains Siegfried. In the past, attempts to apply special custom layouts to the aircraft with the aid of 3D lasers proved to be cumbersome, so the team chooses to create the layout by hand, relying on their expert craftsmanship to recreate the design perfectly. When ready, the team uses high-solids polyurethane coatings in a two-component system to paint the design.
Long gone are the days when all aircraft were painted white and only differed by the airline logo or a few details. Today, business jet owners in particular often attach great importance to the individual appearance of their aircraft and its symbolic value. This preference brings exciting challenges for the experts at the RUAG paint shop in Oberpfaffenhofen. A highlight for Siegfried was painting a Bombardier Global Business Jet according to a design by famous French designer Didier Wolff of Happy Design Studios. The luxury jet was successfully adorned with a ‘Carboneum’ design, which won the prestigious European Product Design Award in 2018.
Didier Wolff remembers: “This was a very special design with extremely thin lines, stripes and honeycombs – outstanding paintwork.” The master designer’s intricate design required complete precision. The tolerance for error was just one millimeter. Didier explains: “When I design a livery, I do consider the work for the paint shop, but sometimes I want to work without having a full idea about how I will apply the design to the aircraft. In such cases, it’s important to work with a team you can trust to help you find the solution to challenges.” Didier continues to work with the RUAG team whenever the opportunity arises.
“We can paint everything that flies.”
Siegfried started out as a car painter. He probably would have gone straight into learning about painting aircraft if that possibility had been available in Germany: “Learning the art of aircraft painting at school does not yet exist in Germany, so most of my colleagues come from the automotive industry just like me.” After years in the automobile industry, Siegfried started to look for new challenges in industrial painting. He wanted something more challenging and exciting, and 30 years ago he found it. Excited and full of passion he began to paint aircraft at Dornier Flugzeugwerft GmbH! And as it happens, his first job was to paint a Dornier 228. Proudly he remembers that project with a smile: “I learned my craft on the Dornier 228.”
Dornier 228: A demanding guest in the paint shop
It was a challenging start for Siegfried: “The Dornier 228 is a very beautiful aircraft – and a very special one when it comes to painting,” says Siegfried. The angular shape of the fuselage alone, he finds a special challenge to paint. In addition, the aircraft structure is made of various materials: part aluminum, part composite, the elevator and the yaw rudder are even covered with a special fabric. “We have to paint these different materials in such a way that the surface looks harmonious and uniform afterwards,” explains Siegfried. For this reason, the layers of paint vary depending on the substrate, and when all the colors look perfectly aligned, the project success brings pride to the team.
The fuselage and wings for a new Dornier 228 are manufactured in India and already have a primer that protects the aircraft from corrosion during shipping. The painters in the RUAG paint shop seal the cavities of the aircraft and do the final painting of the outer skin and the interior of the fuselage. Complete painting of a Dornier 228 takes approximately ten working days, in two-shift operation with four painters per shift.
Another specialty of the Dornier 228 is the round-head rivets on the aircraft fuselage, on which the painters have to work with the utmost care. “They must be handled with care during sanding,” explains dedicated foreman Siegfried. In addition, he notes, these rivets easily collect paint, which can cause the pain to run. “Of course, you have to work very carefully on every aircraft paint job, and with the rivets on the Dornier 228, really the utmost concentration is required.” The specified thickness of the paint layers must also be adhered to precisely – for weight reasons alone.
Siegfried is happy in the aircraft painting industry and plans to continue painting aircraft for as long as possible. He finds it extremely attractive to paint aircraft: “The size, the surface area and the variety of aircraft models make the task more exciting than with a car. And in contrast to cars, you always work with different designs. That’s why aircraft painting has always something new for me.”
Dornier 228 at the RUAG paint shop. (Photo: RUAG / Christian Sedlmeier)