Why Are Aircraft Tails Painted Before Being Attached To The Fuselage?

Whenever you see aircraft being built, you might have noticed that their tails are fully painted in the future owners’ livery. Why is this the case? Simple Flying investigates.

Emirates
An Emirates A380 already has the tail fully painted. Photo: Pixabay

What are our initial ideas?

We make no claims here at Simple Flying that we are aircraft engineers; we would not have the first clue about the complex manufacturing process to build the mechanical birds we love so much. Yet, we have questioned why the tails on these aircraft always seem to be completely finished and painted, despite the rest of the aircraft being far from complete.

Not to leave members of our audience uninformed about this pressing issue, the entire team dropped everything to work on researching this very question.

air-canada-boeing-737-max-february
Aircraft tails are generally delivered right to the factory completely finished. Photo; Air Canada.

Doing some initial probing reveals a colorful variety of different suggestions:

  • Because it’s easier to paint the tail when it is being built and flat, rather than on the back of a plane. This doesn’t make too much sense as they are able to paint the rest of the aircraft, so the tail should provide no challenge.
  • To give the painters something to do whilst they wait for the builders to finish.
  • The components of the tail are different materials and thus need a different way to color and paint. It is possible that the tails, which are normally built elsewhere, are different enough that they require special technologies not available in the normal paint shop.
  • If the airline cancels their order, the aerospace builder has not wasted time and money painting the whole aircraft, just the tail.
  • Like the above, perhaps it is just cheaper to paint the tails elsewhere. Perhaps Boeing and Airbus are supplied the ‘done’ tails, which includes painting.
  • To help the engineers tell which plane they are working on. Obviously this is the least likely to be true (and we know how many aircraft engineers read Simple Flying!) but we couldn’t help but laugh when we found it.

The real reason the tails are painted

But there is one reason that is far more compelling than any of the above according to the Aviation Stack Exchange and Airliners.

The tail, also known as the rudder, needs to be painted before delivery to ensure that it is perfectly balanced and takes into account the weight of the paint. As this is a specialty shop that builds these rudders, it makes sense that they would do the careful painting to ensure that it is completely flawless.

If the rudder is unbalanced, then an effect called ‘flutter’ can occur. This is when the rudder leans into the heavier side (and yes, too thick a coat of paint can cause this) causing the aircraft to list to the side. As aircraft are most affected by cross-winds during take-off and landing, this can cause huge problems and even bigger safety issues.

This rule also applies to anything aerodynamic, like winglets or the new 777X folding wings.

emirates-boeing 777x nears completion
The folding wings are delivered painted. Photo: Emirates Airlines

Did you guess the correct reason why? Or perhaps you have a different theory? Let us know in the comments.

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Smokerr

I go with ID in the factory. How many patient had the wrong knee operated on? Its an easy way to mark what plane is going where and as you are hauling your load of goodies to be installed you just have to look up as your load is for Emirates and there is only one emirates on the line. Maybe two but you know the one in the back needs the stuff you got as the one in the front is finishing. As the entire fin does not move, just the rudder, I don’t buy the it has to… Read more »

Henry Montrose

How about contacting any plane manufacturer and ask them,, you always seem to add as a final paragraph.. We contacted so & so for their opinion/answer .. then you would have the correct response.

Roger Wall

The real reason sounds like nonsense on the 2nd look. Tails are continuosly repainted – when the planes change hands or during the D check… so paintwork during manufacture only makes no sense.

Matt

Boeing doesn’t paint the complete tail, just the flight control surfaces before installation. I’ve had that reason confirmed by several Boeing engineers. If you search, you can find information about how those flight control surfaces have to be re-balanced after a paint job. There are procedures to do it when fully assembled, but it’s easier to do it before final assembly.

mallthus

I grew up just down the street from the factory where MCD built the DC-10, MD-11, DC-9, MD-80, etc. Back in the “old days”, only the rudder itself, as opposed to the entire vertical stabilizer, was painted before assembly. I got very good at identifying airlines based on the rudder alone.

Sam

why is the rudder of the A380 always turned when not in the air?

DJRX

“The tail, also known as the rudder” – not technically correct. The tail of an airplane or the “empennage” technically speaking consists of both the vertical stabilizer and the horizontal stabilizer. The rudder is only one smaller movable component of the overall vertical stabilizer.

MiG

More paint weight on one side causes a list!?! That flutter explanation is asinine and should not be seen by the public. The point is to avoid a rear CG that reduces stability of the control surface.

Dave

So the owner can see there purchase while being built

Lomika

In your 777x photo, why is the rudder not painted?

Eugezilla

It looks like it is painted and masked. you can see a little of the green and black stripe.

I think Boeing only pre-paints the rudder, not the vertical stabilizer.

Hrag

I don’t agree fully. Why the rudder of the new B777x is not painted in the future owners colors?? So I don’t think the reason you are telling us is the correct one

pgcny

In the photo of the 777X under construction, the folding wingtips are painted in Emirates’ colours, but the fin & rudder are not…

martyn warriner

Look closely and you can see it has been painted….probs just covered for protection.

John Hill

The tail is not also known as the rudder – it is the vertical stabilizer. The rudder is at the back of it. Airplanes do not list, they yaw. Your statement about cross-wind problems during takeoff and landing is totally wrong. Flutter is a HIGH airspeed problem. During takeoff and landing, the aircraft is at it’s slowest possible airspeed. Airplanes are not MOST affected by cross-winds during take-off and landing, they are ONLY affected by cross-winds during take-off and landing. A cross-wind has NO affect on an airplane in the air.

Remy

Lovely article. Great to learn something new about airplanes. I wouldn’t have guessed the real reason, but it makes a lot of sense.

Phil Blinkhorn

Oh dear, first off the tail is not also known as the rudder. If you want to be accurate it is the vertical stabilizer which, at its trailing edge, incorporates the rudder which may be one, two or even three piece. The real reason that many, not all, tails are painted before assembly to the fuselage is for a number of reasons. As the highest part of the structure it is easier to paint at a lower level before assembly. Many tails today are of a different construction to the fuselage requiring coating before painting, a coating not removed before… Read more »

Ceefax

It makes sense to paint the rudder before attachment to the fin as the leading edge elements are effectively masked by the fin once fitted. I paint aeroplanes and where practicable always have flying controls removed… I can only assume the fin assy is painted also in some cases for convenience/access as mentioned above.

Alex

I thought it was to avoid work at too much height from floor

Revs

Tail is NOT the rudder. Rudder is the control surface attached to the vertical stabilizer for yawing motion which rotates about the vertical axis of the airplane. Tail is more technically termed as the EMPENNAGE.

R Douglas-Jones

The airline pays a deposit when the order is placed he then makes the second payment when the tail is attached and final payment on collection.

Thierry Vandenkerckhove

A rudder is not a tail but only the mobile part of it…

Thierry Vandenkerckhove

Then why is the tail/vertical stabilizer not painted on your posted pic of EK’s 777X ?