There are cases of aircraft that are not designed for high altitudes that can still fly there and as a result the paint on these aircraft "falls off". Although most aircraft have paint that is chosen to work up to their maximum flight altitude (that is mainly limited by the engine and by aerodynamics), sailplanes are an example of aircraft that do not have a fixed maximum flight altitude. As long as thermals push these aircraft higher, there are few limiting factors for their maximum altitude, as the necessary lift and thus velocity at high altitudes is not as significant as other aircraft since they have a large wing area and low wing loading.

My question thus is not centered around the aerodynamic limits and answers such as "it is selected to work up to its maximum flight altitude" but rather around the process of the selection of compatible paints. It may include design and selection considerations for civil aircraft at 10.000m AGL and for high altitude military fighters. Does the paint over the aircraft surface change due to additional influences e.g. front edge heating?

If necessary, an overview of the different paint types used (at certain altidudes) would be appreciated.

  • $\begingroup$ For me it is just cohesion force ("glue" of paint) vs pressure. Note paints could contains water and bubbles of air. Possibly it is not just the paint, but the method to apply it. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 13:18
  • $\begingroup$ well, this simple approach is not sufficient for me, as it does not tell me which paint I should use and what differences there are. Usually the basics are pretty simple e.g. an airplane is something with a fuselage, wings and engines. But.... $\endgroup$
    – Lumis
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ You should check with paint manufacturers and eventually test it on your own. I do no think there is a list of allowed paint, just requirements that either should be given by manufacturer, or by a testing/certifying authority. Note: the field is complex: usually paints are mixed with stabilizers and UV screen: pigments are often not so stable. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 15:32

1 Answer 1


There are 3 critical areas one may wish to address with paint: the formulation of the paint, how it is attached to the substrate, and the properties of the substrate.

The substrate may expand, contract, bend or twist with heating, cooling, or stress.

The attachment of the paint to the substrate is crucial to durability. Surface preparation includes cleaning, deposition of a chemical coating such as chromate, or primer. This is a make or break step that should not be ignored.

Finally the paint itself. Bare bones paint formula is solvent, pigment, and resin. The solvent evaporates, leaving the pigment (color or shade) and the resin, which is essentially the coating.

Factors such as temperature, flexability, hardness, weather and UV resistance must be considered. The closer the properties of the paint are to the substrate the better.

I would find out what the airliners use.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the brief summary of factors to consider. It is true that airliners are a good reference, but I wonder if the same paint is also viable on aircraft flying in the stratosphere. Also how does the paint layup change in different designs/design altitudes? $\endgroup$
    – Lumis
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ Once the paint is dried and cured, air pressure is not a factor. Extreme temperature will be, so you want a flexible coating that expands and contracts. UV resistance is also very important going high. A "baked on" coating, silicone or fluoropolymer based, may be worth a look. This application will have a lot of sources on the net. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ Airliners have been painted with polyurethane top coat over epoxy zinc chromate primer since the 70s/80s. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Jun 11, 2019 at 15:12

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