Painting the A380 is like icing a cake – the highlight of the production process. Doing the job right involves spray guns, masking tape and lots of attention to detail
They call it ballet, but nobody’s dancing. After all, getting 24 masked painters to spray-paint the body of the world’s largest commercial aircraft snow-white in 60 minutes is no mean choreographic feat. That’s right, 60 minutes for 1,500 square meters of aircraft. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake lasts one-and-a-half hours. The A380 paint job is a performance that no-one should miss.
The ballet takes place behind the closed doors of the Airbus paint shop in Hamburg’s Finkenwerder district. The shop is 31 meters high in places and its 22,365 square-meter footprint beats that of an apartment block in Manhattan. The shop has a sophisticated ventilation system, too. Nine heat exchangers capture over 70 percent of the thermal energy for recycling. A complete exchange of air takes place up to 18 times an hour. That’s a displacement volume of just under 700,000 cubic meters.
The professional paint shop makes an ideal stage. In a large, windowless space the lead actor is bathed in brilliant artificial light. Teleplatforms hover up and down the sides of the sleeping giant, while technicians in white suits, helmets and breathing masks, spray the surface of the plane evenly from a distance of about 30 centimeters; back and forth like table tennis in slow motion.
This one-hour ballet is the climax of a process that actually takes two weeks. First the plane’s outer surfaces are sanded and cleaned; then, landing gear, antennas, doors and windows are all covered with impermeable protective sheeting and masking tape before the first coat, a chromate-free primer, is applied. Next comes an intermediate coat that will enable ecological removal of the upper coats every eight to ten years. This is followed by a layer of white paint. “There are many different kinds of white,” production manager Berndt Ahrens explains, “cold white, glacier white.” The shade of white used by Lufthansa recalls snow glistening in the midday sun.
The white whale takes six hours to dry, after which marking film that has already been cut to size is put in place and the lettering is sprayed on. The aircraft is not demasked until the final coats are dry. This is when the plane reveals its personal ID, its Lufthansa registration number in dark blue on white, and the dark blue Lufthansa lettering up to 1.80 meters high. Now follows the last act, the great pièce des résistance, when two clear coats are applied, sprayed on by hand. These coats take 24 hours to dry. The finished paint job is a mere 0.2 millimeters thick, the paint weighing only 650 kilograms. That’s amazingly little for an aircraft of this size and a big fuel-saving factor, too.
For the finale, the huge plane is unwrapped. Gleaming and sparkling, it awaits its first passengers.