aircraft painted white

Why are planes usually painted white?

If you look carefully at non-military airplanes such as a commercial airplane, you will notice that most are painted white. Ever wondered why airplane companies use white airplane painting usually? Two reasons for this are: the white color helps to cool the aircraft and protects the plane from excessive heat by reflecting sunlight. Let’s see the other reasons that will surprise you.

Have you ever wondered why most non-military planes especially commercial ones are painted white? There are exceptions, some airlines like the South African carrier mango tend to be bright orange or the Siberian S7 fleet are famously painted lime green. But the best majority of other planes are nearly always colored white or have a color scheme that is predominantly white.

Is this just a coincidence or is there actually a scientific reason?

Advantages of painting aircraft?

Is there actually a reason to paint them at all? After all paints adds a lot of extra weight to an aircraft. Which in turn means more fuel is burned. However apart from being able to identify a particular operator from one another there are actually some very sound reasons to paint aircraft in the first place.

Many early aircraft especially those prior to world war 2 were usually left completely bare. In modern times the former American Airlines also famously had a largely bare aluminum exterior. This strategy is something of a false economy while it does save precious cash from some manufacturing maintenance and fuel expenses. It will cost the operator over time. The main reason is that it leaves the aircraft’s fuselage exposed and unprotected. Over time this tends to cause the plane to tarnish, attracting the frequent need to polish the exterior.

Painting a plane also helps improve the craft structural integrity. And makes it easier to clean and maintain in the long term. So painting an aircraft seems to be a good idea. But why choose white?

Why are planes usually painted white?

White paint is cheap

The first reason planes tend to be painted white is, as you might have guessed purely economical. Painting an aircraft is a very expensive affair. The process of painting an entire commercial airliner can cost anywhere between fifty thousand and two hundred thousand dollars depending on the size of the craft. The simpler and plainer the design, the lower the cost overall. If you factor in the lifelong maintenance costs of repainting an aircraft when needed. This can lead to a considerable overhead for the carrier. With white paint being relatively cheap and easily available choosing a primarily white scheme will save a lot of money over the planes service life.

Many carriers also sell their planes to other carriers which would require an expensive new paint job. If the plane were painted in a distinctive color like bright orange. By choosing more neutral paint schemes it increases the likelihood of a quicker sale. Since a mainly white paint scheme is easier to modify by the new owner.

White reflects sunlight

The next reason white is often chosen is thermodynamics. A white color helps to passively cool the aircraft. White surfaces tend to reflect a lot of sunlight. This reduces the build-up of heat and also the potential damage from solar radiation during the life of the plane. Heat and solar radiation can particularly damage the non-metal parts of the plane made of plastics or composite materials like fiberglass or carbon fiber.

This is why parts such as the nose cone of the plane where the aircraft radar is housed in the control surfaces which are made of composite materials are all usually painted white. It is vital that these parts of the plane are protected as much as possible.

The Concorde for example use specially designed highly reflective white paint. Which could withstand the extreme heat generated during supersonic flight. At its nose temperatures could reach as much as 127 degrees Celsius. To mitigate this a special white paint with a very high reflectivity was created.

White paints acts as insurance policy

The next reason is that white paint is something of an insurance policy. Using a mainly white paint scheme makes it easier to spot cracks dent and oil spills. The color white is also very easy to spot from a distance. It does reflect a lot of light after all. So in case of a tragic plane crash it would in theory at least be easier to find the wreckage during search and rescue.

White paint also doesn’t really fade like other colored paints. This means you don’t need to repaint the plane as often. Moreover according to some estimates a single layer of paint to an entire Boeing 737 adds around 180 kilograms to its total weight. For the larger 747 this could add as much as 500 kilograms. Adding layers of paint to the plane and increasing its overall weight results in more fuel consumption and more overheads.

Painted white aircraft keeps birds away

Finally white paint also helps keep the birds away. According to research, by enhancing the planes visibility, you can actually reduce the chance of birds striking the plane. Lighter color increases the contrast between the aircraft and the background. In theory helping birds to detect the aircraft in time to veer out of the way.

Next time you find yourself in an airport with a few hours to spare. You can audit the chosen color schemes of various commercial airliners. You may find yourself shaking your head at the foolishness of their choice of paint scheme.