Why Is White the Standard Aircraft Color?
In addition to serving as a uniform across all aircraft, aircraft paint helps support its structural integrity and performance. Paint layers protect the aircraft by covering exposed fuselage regions while their special anticorrosive properties ensure a longer operational lifespan. Moreover, properly applied paint coatings can reduce drag and enhance fuel efficiency by filling in microscopic cracks at the skin-air interface. While traveling, many have likely noticed that the vast majority of aircraft are painted white, despite the colors associated with their respective airline branding. Of course, this is not purely a cosmetic decision, but rather one based on the benefits endowed to the vessel by choosing white paint. In this article, we will discuss the reasons behind this color becoming the standard for most commercial aircraft worldwide.
Radiation control is a salient characteristic of aircraft optimization, as is thermal management. Both of these factors are influenced directly by the color of the aircraft through a property called emissivity. Emissivity refers to the ability of an object to emit infrared or heat energy. This value is determined by several components, including chemical structure, shape, and color. In terms of color, what we physically perceive is whichever portion of the visible electromagnetic spectrum that the object reflects. Objects which are black absorb most of the light that hits them, meaning very little is reflected, while the opposite is true for white elements. In the context of aviation, airlines use this fact to ensure occupant comfort and to lessen the damaging effects of solar radiation.
Painting a typical passenger aircraft runs anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000. As with all hefty expenses, airlines look for ways to maximize their investment and extend the time between touch-ups. With that in mind, white paint does not fade when exposed to harsh environmental conditions, saving on expenses in two ways. First, in avoiding cosmetic retouches, airlines are able to mitigate thousands of dollars in the cost of paint and labor. The other, less appreciated, cost-saving factor is the increase in fuel efficiency, since several coats of paint will contribute to increased drag.
Visual inspection remains one of the most critical steps in damage identification. During these periods of skin and fuselage assessment, trained maintenance personnel must look over the vessel for any signs of damage, whether in the form of a crack or dent. When aircraft are painted white, this time-intensive task becomes a lot easier, as crew members are much more efficient at noticing the distinct difference in contrast between the white elements and off-colored deficiencies.
Despite these benefits, there are certain circumstances where white aircraft may be inappropriate. The most obvious case is that of military aircraft which are characteristically gray across the globe. This is due to the stealth component that comes along with a more neutral color against the backdrop of the sky. This begs the question, why was gray chosen as the de-facto standard amongst modern military aircraft, versus a light blue or associated color? This question dates back to the years following World War II when military aviation experts rigorously studied various paint schemes to help identify which would offer the greatest stealth advantage. Although a light-blue fighter plane might blend in well from a ground perspective, no other paint job besides gray yielded diverse camouflage characteristics amongst a variety of backdrops.
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