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