Wrapping Aircraft

The inside scoop on the challenges of wrapping aircraft.

Remember as a kid the first time you saw the boy down the block take a clothespin and attach a playing card to the front spokes of the bicycle? It seemed to transform the bike into a motorbike. How cool was that?! You couldn’t wait to get home and do the same thing to your own bike. Weren’t you impressed by that technology?

Well, similarly I recall in the early days of large format digital graphics, we were all so impressed with the new technology of wide format printing. We thought we were super cool too because we had the first state-of-the art-digital printer to do vehicle graphics. That first printer cost well over $300,000, and the printer was a whopping 34 inches wide. Our first Mac Computer came standard with 4MB of Ram, which we upgraded to an unheard of 64MB, and a “monstrous” 1GB hard drive. Because of our upgrades, that Mac cost us $30,334.95!

Early Days of Wrap
The term “wrap” had not evolved yet. We would “decal” vehicles. When we were asked to create graphics for vehicles with windows, we had a dilemma. What should we do about the windows? We lost a lot of important graphic area by not covering the windows. Back in the 70’s we perforated films for window tint shops. We wondered if that would be a good idea for digital printing. So with the help of Avery we decided to perforate adhesive-backed vinyl.

It was trial and error to begin with but necessity is the mother of invention, and before too long, we were successfully utilizing perforated vinyl in conjunction with our vehicle graphic wraps. History was made. We were the first company to wrap a vehicle including the perforated window film. Now it is commonplace and found in all print shops that wrap vehicles.

“We Can Wrap Anything”
Like most of you, a need presents itself, and we try to figure out the best solution.

Some years ago, one of our salespeople came in and asked, “Can you wrap an aircraft?” I naively thought sure, we have wrapped just about everything else out there. We can wrap anything. I told him, you sell it; we’ll wrap it. With check in hand, we fired up the printer, laminated the panels and stuck them on. It was a beautiful.

We had that proud feeling you get when you think you are special. We didn’t know of anyone else who had wrapped a plane before. Then we got the phone call… “Houston, we have a problem.” (Thank you, NASA, for the extremely appropriate comment.) We had a very big problem.

Come to find out there is a lot of liability in putting graphics on an aircraft. The wrap was nice; the customer loved it-until he was grounded by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). Of course the first thing they did was point the finger at us saying, “They did it!” The FAA came knocking on our door. You don’t want the FAA knocking on your door.

We had to immediately strip off those graphics, refund the customer all his money, apologize profusely, and walk away with our tail between our legs.

When it comes to aircraft we have learned a lot over the years. First and foremost, the liability issue is huge! We found out there are regulations that do not allow any modifications to an aircraft without official written documentation and approval. (The exception is the experimental aircraft category.)

Now, before we commit to doing any graphics on an aircraft, there is a form we require the aircraft owner’s engineer to sign off on. Typically an aircraft will be assigned a Designated Engineer Representative (DER).

Specialized Aircraft Films
Standard vehicle wrapping vinyl is not approved for aircraft graphics. The common film we use is not vinyl, but a specifically engineered product for aircraft. 3M makes such a film, which they regulate. There is a specific procurement process for the specialized aircraft films, including documentation like the aircraft engineers sign off letter, before the films can be released.

What makes these films special? For one thing, the film must have micro-perforated holes similar to window perf. Remember our history of being the first to perforate vinyl for vehicle wraps?

Why perforated film? Well, another thing we learned is that aircraft with pressurized cabins experience “seepage” when they fly. Pressurized air in the cabin leaks out around the rivets, seams, etc. If the film didn’t have little holes in it, the air would not escape which could cause large air pockets under the film that eventually might cause the film to pop off and get sucked into the jet engine. That’s a bad thing if you’re flying at 500 knots and over 30,000 feet in the air!

Using a film laminate would defeat the purpose of the holes in the film. You would effectively change the film back to a solid piece. There are approved compatible liquid laminates for aircraft film that can be used to protect the graphic. These clear coats need to not only be compatible with the base film, but also the ink set you are using. When film laminates have been used, we have seen the laminate lift right in the middle of the graphic, not even close to any edge.

Speed and Temperature Issue
Another reason the specialty film, ink and clear coat all need to be compatible, is due to the speed and temperatures the aircraft are exposed to. They are nothing like what a vehicle wrap is exposed to or what we experience down here on land. An aircraft can be on a black tarmac in the middle of the summer and be literally 100+ degrees F. Then, in a matter of minutes, it is at thousands of feet in the air in well below freezing temperatures. The effects are compounded with the speed and friction of the air. Add to that the fuselage is expanding and contracting all at the same time. It is brutal on the film. But we have learned it is not impossible as you can see in the photos.

To Infinity and Beyond
What’s next? Well, we have actually wrapped some satellites that have gone into outer space. We don’t know how they are holding up, and they will never come back home. So if any of you happen to be catching a ride with Sir Richard Branson, please do me a favor. Ask for a window seat and let me know.


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