Pima Air & Space Museum

More than 160,000 visitors per year file through the gates at Pima Air & Space Museum, the largest privately funded, nongovernmental aerospace museum in the world. With nearly 300 aircraft on display across its 80 acres in Tucson, Ariz., the facility sits in the middle of an aircraft-lover’s paradise. Just across the road, the ‘Boneyard,’ or 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, houses more than 4,400 surplus aircraft from all branches of the U.S. military and the federal government.
Pima has acquired most of its collection through loans from the Boneyard or other federal sources, with additional aircraft obtained through donation or purchase. However they arrive, the F-15s, B-17s, B-52s, 737s, UH-1 helicopters – the list goes on and on – need sprucing and periodic maintenance to keep them in exhibition-quality shape. That task falls to Scott Marchand, the museum’s director of collections and aircraft restoration. One major aspect of maintenance includes a painting regimen.
”We paint from 10 to 14 planes per year,” he says, “depending on the sizes of the planes, their paint scheme and weather conditions.”

UV Onslaught Demands Attention to Coating

The sunny Arizona weather makes ultraviolet light the biggest challenge for plane coatings. Old-formula paints from the 1960s and ‘70s had held up very well, Marchand notes, but by the 1990s many of these paints had to be re-formulated to comply with EPA requirements.
“These re-formulated paints failed horrendously, extensively and dramatically,” he says, mincing no words.
Then, in 2004, Marchand tried Prism® fleet refinishing coatings from Martin Senour, distributed through NAPA, and has used them ever since. Prism, a complete acrylic-polyurethane system available in basecoat/clearcoat or single-stage topcoat technology, is offered in solid, metallic and pearl colors. Chosen for simple application, excellent hiding properties, quick dry times and superb gloss, Prism is available in 0.5, 2.8 and 3.5 VOC levels. The museum mainly uses the Prism 3.5-VOC single-stage formulation.
Pima Air & Space Museum employs high-gloss Prism coatings during the painting process, which, as compared to flat and semi-gloss finishes, better locks in free ions that otherwise would reflect off of the base metal and slowly tear the coating apart, leading to oxidation and a diminished finish.
“We have about 140 planes exhibited outside, and the longer we can keep them looking good, the more time and money resources that we can spend our on other tasks,” reasons Marchand.

Facilities Enable Indoor and Outdoor Painting

A 30,000-square-foot main restoration facility with 35-foot-high doors serves as the center of painting operations at Pima Air & Space Museum, complete with a spray booth large enough to hold two cement trucks. If aircraft can’t fit into the spray booth, it’s painted outside, per an EPA exemption for periodic maintenance of large-scale equipment, according to Marchand. To meet EPA water-handling regulations, the museum recently installed an isolated aircraft wash rack with a water-treatment system.
The painting process at Pima Air & Space Museum lasts six to eight weeks for an average-sized plane such as an F-15 fighter jet, with actual painting comprising one-third of that time. Preparation, where stripping isn’t required, includes power washing and scuffing the surfaces to be re-coated as well as performing any needed repairs and covering areas to protect against overspray. Painting includes a primer overspray and then a topcoat. For the most part, crews will not disassemble planes for painting, as that requires the use of special jigs and rigging that the museum does not possess.
“We try to have two or three planes in different stages of preparation at one time,” says Marchand. “That allows us to take advantage of available staff and volunteers as well as weather conditions. We want to make sure we have something to serve to the painters when they are done with the previous plane. The goal is to keep as short of a gap as possible when we are on the paint gun.”

Prism Custom-Tinted for Each Job

With varying color schemes for each plane, Pima Air & Space Museum has its Martin Senour Prism paint custom-tinted and delivered for each job, and only keeps red, white and blue insignia colors – commonly used on U.S. military and government planes – in stock. Of course, plane size and paint scheme determines the amount of paint used, but Marchand offered one of the museum’s biggest jobs as an example.
“A few years ago we painted a B-36 Peacemaker,” he says, referring to a strategic bomber in service from 1949 to 1959 that, at 230 feet, had the largest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built. “That took several months of preparation, and the actual painting took eight weeks. Due to the desert heat we only could paint for a couple hours in the morning before the plane’s surface became too hot. We used 25-30 gallons of primer to cover the airplane, then 40-45 gallons of Prism metallic silver to provide three topcoats, and then 5-10 gallons of red, white and blue for the insignia and markings. Crews used 12-15 gallons of white to coat the plane’s underside.”
Since 2002, when Marchand moved from his native Canada to take a position at Pima Air & Space Museum, he’s overseen the meticulous care given the B-36 and other aircraft in the museum’s collection, and the capability of Martin Senour Prism coating systems in preserving and protecting these precious artifacts. In this aircraft-lover’s paradise, nothing else will do.