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Mako makeover: Maintainers put showroom finish on F-16s

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Ray Sarracino
  • 482nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
For people old enough to remember Earl Scheib's promise to repaint any car for $39.95, it seemed like a small price to restore one's "wheels." Although aircraft are not immune from periodic sprucing up, the work required to get a 93rd Fighter Squadron "Mako" F-16 back in showroom condition is a far cry from Scheib's approach.

For starters, aircraft require an immense amount of preparation before the first coat of paint goes on. Washing, sanding, then taping off and prepping the plane takes considerably longer on an F-16 than on cars made 30 years ago.

When one of the Air Force Reserve Command planes arrives at the paint shop, reservists thoroughly inspect the jet to make sure there's no damage before the process begins. Crews then wash the entire plane and sand it down to the metal to ensure new paint doesn't chip off later.

Although sanding is a long process, it takes a bit less time thanks to modern procedures that reduce the amount of potentially dangerous chemicals released into the atmosphere. Paints are made of polymers and other chemicals that must be disposed of properly, so today's technicians use sanders with powerful vacuums, which collect the paint dust and store it to discard appropriately later.

The process reduces the need for pressure washing the aircraft once sanding is complete, saving about a half-day in drying time.

Next, Airmen apply the first of three coats of paint, the primer. The primer coat ensures the metal is thoroughly protected and that the other coats have a strong surface to adhere to.

After the primer coat has had a day to dry, it's time to start putting the final coats, which give the planes their distinctive look.

Painters apply the first coat of medium gray to the nose, bottom of the wings and fuselage, and tail. Then, they put a coat of dark gray on the top of the wings and fuselage.

Once the final coat has dried, crews perform two days worth of meticulous work applying many stencils that appear all over the jet. Once dry, the job is complete and the plane is returned to the pilots and crew chiefs in showroom condition.

It takes more than an artistic eye and a steady hand: It takes paperwork.

According to Tech. Sgt. Luis Ayala, a structural maintenance technician, the frenzied pace in the paint booth is matched only by the pace of meticulous record-keeping to keep up with the job. Sergeant Ayala said that keeping good records prevents problems from surfacing later. This is particularly important for the safety of the people in the shop, as well as people working on the aircraft later.

"Safety is our number one priority. Keeping chemicals out of the environment, and out of our bodies, is the number one part of our processes," he said.

And a great deal of effort is directed at this push for safety. From sanding to masking and taping to applying the coats of paint, safety is foremost in the minds of the technicians every step of the way. The equipment they use, the clothing they wear, everything is designed with safety in mind.

The spray booth also has air-monitoring equipment.

"Our shop handles some of the more dangerous chemicals on the base -- polyurethanes, resins, adhesives. We have to be vigilant," Sergeant Ayala said.

The monitoring equipment ensures that nothing is leaking from the spray booth and that air quality within remains safe. As an added measure, technicians wear respirators and are covered from head to toe in safety suits.

It takes roughly six people working for six days to bring a jet back to showroom finish for its return to the sky. And, once the tools are cleaned up and put away, the paperwork finished, and mess safely disposed of, it's time to get the shop ready for the next project. (AFRC News Service)