Plane & Pilot
Monday, November 2, 2009

Upgrade Your Plane! Part I

Part I: A new exterior

upgradeFrom time to time, Plane & Pilot embarks on a proverbial aircraft-upgrade project and chronicles the progress for the enjoyment and edification of readers. While the rationale behind upgrading what you already own versus biting off an armored carload of new debt to finance another aircraft may be open to debate, the upgrade process itself is dynamic and worthy of revisiting on occasion. Consider how much the field of retrofitable avionics has changed since 2007, and you’ll see what we mean by “dynamic.”

In a three-part series about upgrading a 1971 Piper Cherokee PA28-180, we’ll walk you through refurbishing an original interior/exterior, modernizing a steam-gauge panel and deliberating over the options firewall forward—all the while noting the thought process, budget implications and personal experience of the odyssey.

Refurbishing The Exterior
In my case, I decided to start the project from the outside in, opting first for new paint. While it may seem logical to finish the upgrade process with paint (to minimize potential damage in the process of engine and panel upgrades), I needed corrosion protection first. Thus, it was either bucket-and-roller time, or enlist the help of a trained professional: I opted for the latter.

Frankly, my aircraft was so ugly, I’d fly it only at night; that way no one would see me walking out to it. Consequently, the upcoming exterior refurbishment had great appeal to me. Certainly the panel and firewall-forward upgrades enhance safety, but a shiny new paint job can be appreciated by everyone and offers pride of ownership.

Finding The Right Shop
As with most things, you really do get what you pay for when it comes to aircraft paint jobs. While there’s a wide range of prices (typically $5,000 to $15,000 for a piston single), there’s a commensurate range of quality. Having seen paint jobs on the lower end of the spectrum, I knew that I wanted more for my paint investment than a “budget job.” I wanted something I was proud of and workmanship that would last for years.

High-quality aircraft painting is an art form, and some of the finest paint shops never seem to advertise. Consequently, finding them can be a challenge. In the past, I’ve left business cards on aircraft, hoping that the owner would contact me with a hot tip. I’ve also just plain asked anyone and everyone I know in the industry (and that’s a good number of folks). Ultimately, my choice was solidified through a word-of-mouth recommendation from someone I trust and respect. (A word to the wise: Once you make your selection, look at some examples of the finished product. If you intend to drop five figures on paint, you certainly don’t want to suffer buyer’s remorse the day you pick up your plane.)

As with most things, you really do get what you pay for when it comes to aircraft paint jobs.

I selected Custom Aircraft Refinishing ( in Casselton, N.D., and I couldn’t have been more delighted. The company has been painting aircraft for more than 14 years and has done warbirds, business jets, singles, twins, experimentals and even the occasional crop duster. Its environmentally controlled paint facility ensures that humidity and dust—two of the three worst enemies of a quality paint job—are controlled so the end product is near perfect every time. (If you visit a potential paint shop that’s painting aircraft with the hangar door open, run away—screaming is optional.)

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